Eric Kluitenberg on Sun, 23 Aug 1998 01:08:41 +0200

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Syndicate: A report from the Baltic cyber-corridor

Dear Syndicalists,

Please find herewith a sligthly re-written version of the 'report' I
contributed to Inke's issue of Convergence. This text is re-edited for
inclusion for the upcoming "JUNCTION SKOPJE: DEEP_EUROPE 1997 - 1998"
reader, again edited by Inke Arns.

Even though the text is already somewhat older, any reactions, critical or
otherwise, would be appreciated.

See you all in Skopje!


Connectivity, New Freedom, New Marginality

A report from the Baltic cyber-corridor
By  Eric Kluitenberg

[A slightly re-edited version of the original article which appeared in
Convergence, Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Volume 4,
Number 2, Summer 1998, "New Media Cultures in Eastern, Central and
South-Eastern Europe", edited by Inke Arns]

On the far north-east corner, bordering on the territories of the Russian
Federation, the three Baltic breakaway states of the Soviet Union, Estonia,
Latvia and Lithuania re-appeared on the European map in 1991. In the
radical transformation process taking place in these mini-states,
networking technologies would seem ideally suited to connect these
societies to the rest of Europe - and they do. Viewed from a cultural
perspective, networking technologies also promise to hold a potential for
mastering the social and cultural transitions facing these countries.
Though hardly any less profound than their economical and political
counterpart, these changes appear to be much less tangible. Recently a
critical discourse has started to emerge in the Baltics about the social
and cultural impact of networking, and the emancipatory claims connected
with the propagation of new 'Information and Communication Technology'. At
stake is the question of whether this emerging cyber-corridor can make a
substantive contribution to the social and cultural development of the
Baltic states?


The break-up of the Soviet Union threatened the Baltic states with cultural
isolation, both from the former 'East' as well as the former 'West'. In the
new socio-political and economical constellations of post cold-war Europe,
connectivity might prove to be one of the more helpful instruments for an
attempt to re-locate the current re-appraisal of the rigorously repressed
cultural national identities of the Baltic states in the larger cultural
framework of contemporary Europe. But networked media also pose a new
threat to the reclaimed national and cultural identities of these new
states; the perils of globalisation. As a result an emerging culture of
connectivity is perceived with mixed emotions.

To get a clearer understanding of the context in which this debate is
unfolding it is useful to explore the demographic and political situation
in the Baltic sates a bit further. All the three Baltic states have a large
Russian minority living within their territories. Estonia has a total
population of approximately 1.57 million, out of which 66% are Estonian,
and a little over 30% are Russian. Latvia has a total population of 2.57
million, out of which 52% are Latvian, 34% are Russian, and 4.75% are
Belorussian, while 3.5% are Ukrainians. Lithuania, finally has a relatively
smaller Russian minority. Out of its 3.71 million inhabitants, 81.4% are
Lithuanian, 8.3% are Russian, 7% are Poles, and 1.5% are Belorussians.

Less well known is the politically tense situation of Kalliningrad.
Situated on the Baltic coast, disconnected from the Russian territory, the
city forms a Russian enclave. Kalliningrad is the Soviet name for the
former Prussian city of K�¶nigsberg, is closed of by Lithuania from the
north and by Poland from the south. The city derives much of its historical
fame from its academic past, being the home seat of Immanuel Kant. Today
the enclave is primarily a strategically highly important military harbour
for the Russian Federation. The absence of a transit corridor to the rest
of the Russian federation and the crucial strategic interests invested in
this city, turn the region into a continuous zone of political tension.

Obviously, the large Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia are a matter
of great concern for the Russian federation. There is particular concern
about nationalistic tendencies in the Baltic states and the effect this
will have on the status of the Russian minorities. The Baltic national
cultures, identities and languages have been severely repressed during the
Soviet times. After the  Soviet annexation of the Baltic states at the end
of the second world war, the Russian language was rigorously imposed as the
official language in these countries. Since then language has become a
focal point for unresolved social tension and political debates. All the
Baltic states have connected the civil status of their inhabitants with the
mastery of the national language, a policy specifically targeted at the
Russian speaking minorities.

On an international level, tensions once again became apparent in the
discussions about the expansion of the sphere of interest of the NATO
alliance, and the recent negotiations over EU expansion. Both NATO and EU
membership are declared goals of the foreign policy of all the three Baltic
states. Estonia in particular has actively pursued this policy. As the
economically most successful of the three Baltic states, it has been
admitted to the first group of countries from the former 'East' to be
eligible for future EU membership. In contrast, the Russian Federation has
made its strategic and political interest clear by threatening war, should
the Baltic states be included in the NATO alliance.

As it is not possible to go further into this complicated discussion at any
length, and therefore with sufficient depth. It may suffice here to take
notice of this complicated demographic and political context. It is clear
that a resolution of these conflicts and tensions can only be achieved in a
comprehensive settlement of Russian, Baltic and European interests, a
solution which, at the moment, does not seem to be close at hand.

A wider perspective...

Until 1995, the promise of digital networking technologies was discussed
mainly on a technical and economic level in the Baltics. The cultural and
social dimension of was largely ignored. Precisely this lack of an
interdisciplinary and cultural perspective was the incentive for the two
Interstanding conferences that took place in Tallinn in 1995 and 1997.
Interstanding, sub-titled "Understanding Interactivity" tried to address
the social and cultural implications of computer mediated communication and
interactivity from a broad interdisciplinary perspective, bringing together
art, design, media theory, media activism, philosophy, and political theory
and action.

The first Interstanding conference was divided into three days. Each day
covered part of the basic territory of the emerging networked cultures. The
first day 'The Design of Interactivity' sketched an overview of what the
guiding notion of interactivity meant in terms of its phenomenology
('application areas'), as well as its philosophical and
media-archaeological meaning. The second day, 'Community and Identity in
the Global Infosphere' dealt with new definitions of identity of local
culture and identification and new forms of networked communities and
social relationship in virtual environments. The third day, 'Strategies for
Participation' dealt with the political questions of access and

The question of identity and identification with collective signifiers is
crucial in the context of the Baltic states. It will be hard to describe
with any degree of accuracy the reversal of identity that seems to qualify
the personal experience of the Baltic people who lived under Soviet rule,
after the political and social transformations. It was explained to me as a
reversal of roles. In the Soviet era the native Baltic inhabitants were
forced to assume a double identity. The outward version was the official
'Soviet' identity, connected to a strict definition of the social position
and role within the rigid structure of the Soviet society. The inward
version, instead, was connected to the personal realm, the family ties, and
very importantly to language (the use of native Baltic languages was
forbidden by Soviet rule) and religion (The dominant religions in he Baltic
states being Protestantism and Catholicism, as opposed to the dominance of
the Orthodox church in Russia).

With the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the successful struggle
for independence of the Baltic states in the late summer and fall of 1991,
these definitions of identity were reversed. The inward native Baltic
identity became the official social code. The native languages were
restored as the official languages of the Baltic states, while the Russian
language quickly fell out of use, at the very least for official conduct.
To further strengthen the social integration of the new states, both
Estonia and Latvia adopted legislation allowing the Russian minority
populations only a temporary citizenship. Official 'naturalisation' and
recognition of their citizenship was made dependent on mastery of the
native language, for which a much hated official test had to be passed.

In this process the old identity, the official social roles performed in
the Soviet era did not disappear. Instead they became part of a new inward
definition of identity. This new inward identity would seem close to a
relocation into the sub-conscious, a collectively shared repressed memory,
if not a trauma, which remains invisibly present behind the rapidly
changing face of everyday reality in the Baltics.

As a result, questions of identity in relation to an information and
communication environment with potentially global dimensions became a focal
point of discussions. George Legrady's famous CD-Rom project 'An Anecdoted
Archive from the Cold War', one of the art projects presented at the first
Interstanding conference, provided an allegorical framework of Cold War
memorabilia for the discussion. The potential gravity of such identity
questions was made clear through an intermission by representatives of the
Zamir peace network, active in the terrain of the former Yugoslavia. In
their experience dividing lines in the violent Yugoslav conflicts were
drawn exactly along lines of definitions of identity. They summarised their
uneasiness in the remark that "nothing divides people more than identity".

Again the question of language is important here. The purported global
cultural dimension of the net is hardly reflected in the quantity of native
tongues in the 'infosphere'. The net, still, is heavily dominated by the
hegemony of Anglo-Saxon culture and the English language. It inspires fears
of a loss of a newly regained national identity, especially in small
nations such as the Baltic mini-states. The Internet thereby can become an
easy target of hatred and scepticism, perceived as an invasive force rather
than a corridor, a cultural life-line. It was little coincidence,
therefore, that a coalition of writers and conservative politicians
severely criticised the first Interstanding conference in the Estonian


The second Interstanding conference (1997), part of a larger media art and
culture event in Tallinn and Tartu, dealt with the notion of 'freedom'. It
sought to interrogate the discourses of freedom that have developed around
the net, and discuss their emancipatory claims.

Although Peter Lamborn Wilson in his opening speech of the conference,
'Beyond the Temporary Autonomous Zone' claimed the failure of his pirate
utopia of the Net. The text nonetheless constituted an important starting
point for the discussion. In his pirate utopia "The Temporary Autonomous
Zone", originally published in 1985, Lamborn Wilson stressed the demand of
the sensual, and the recognition of the embodied nature of experience.
Neo-Platonic or Neo-Gnostic notions of disembodied spheres of experience
are rejected in this view. Yet, many of the emancipatory claims about the
net (or in the glocal vocabulary 'cyberspace'), rely heavily on the
disembodied nature of the social interactions via the net.

In these arguments the net is portrayed as a new space or sphere of
freedom; freedom of biological determinacy (gender-bending), freedom of
local censorship (because of the mobility of data flows over borders, and
out of jurisdictions), and of personal freedom (because of the many
subcultures connecting across the geographical divide). This notion was
already strong in the type of cyber-utopia put forward in Michael
Benedict's anthology 'Cyberspace First Steps' (MIT Press, 1992). It reached
full momentum, however, around the publication of John Perry Barlow's
'Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace''.

Barlow wrote his manifesto in protest to the US Telecom 'Reform' Act of
1996. This law would impose serious restrictions on the free flow of ideas
and information via the Internet and other media in the US. For the moment
it has been withheld by the US Senate for revision. In his cyberspace
independence declaration Barlow characterises the net (cyberspace) as the
"new home of the mind". He emphasises the uncontrollable flow of
information, beyond the control of nation based politics " a world soon
blanketed in bit bearing media". Though the politics of the nation state
may still exert control over the bodies of its citizens it would no longer
be able to control the free deployment of the mind in cyberspace, according
to Barlow.

Barlow's manifesto has already been heavily criticised. The text and
materials relating to the subsequent discussion can be found in nettime's
ZKP 2 collection (see below). What is important to note here is that this
view, though politically critical in itself, implies a complete denial of
the physical rootedness of lived experience. The embodied sphere of the
nation bound politics of repression are disengaged from the discourse of
the disembodied sphere of networked communications. This separation is
questionable to say the least, as if the latter could exist independently
of the first at all. It also points towards a confusion, a misunderstanding
of the complex interactions that qualify the politics and everyday life in
networked societies. The two spheres coexist and interact continuously, but
how the conflicts that result from these continuous and often stressful
interactions can be resolved remains largely unclear.

The 'freedom' conference emphasised the point that any emancipatory
potential of digital networking technologies is unlikely to emerge from
considering the net itself as a new sphere of experience of cultural,
political and personal freedom. The liberatory potential of a decentralised
information and communication system should least of all be denied.
However, the real value of the medium appears to be its potential to
function as a strategic devise for political and cultural action. As a
tactical medium it can strengthen the pluriformity and diversity of social
and cultural practices in societies where these values are neglected,
denied, or under threat, often for a variety of reasons. The interaction of
lived social reality and the networked social interactions, what Manuel
Castells has called 'the space of place'  and 'the space of flows'
respectively, are at the heart of this debate.


How ill equipped society currently is to deal with the discontinuities
between these two 'spaces' can be illustrated by two local examples from
the Baltic region. The first comes from Estonia, and is recorded for
history as Estonia's first Internet scandal. It unfolded in the summer of
1996. The scandal revolved around a satirical poem by the Estonian writer
Sven Kivisildnik. In the poem, originally written and published in 1990, he
exposed the members of the Soviet Estonian Union of Writers by turning the
list of names into a poem.

A detailed account of the scandal is given in Heie Treiers text "The Case
of Sven Kivisildnik - Or how the conceptual poet of the Internet became a
scapegoat of Estonia", in the V2_East / Syndicate Deep_Europe 1996-97
reader. The point, Treier notes, is that many of the names of the list
never published any work locally, nor internationally. Most of them in fact
should be identified as spies. Remarkably the original publication of the
poem (in print) never aroused a big stir. But the news that the poem was
now available over the Internet, because Kivisildnik had decided to make
his work available in the net, incited outrage. The people on the list felt
exposed before a world-wide audience, even though the text was published in
Estonian, on an obscure Estonian web site.

Police action was taken to remove the poem from the Internet. As the police
was, however, unable to come up with any 'material' evidence when they
stormed the writers house, they decided to 'arrest' his computer and
peripherals to ban the dissented information from the Internet. An act, not
only undeniably comical, but also rather senseless, as the information
could reappear on the net at any time, outside of the jurisdiction of the
Estonian police, via foreign servers specifically dedicated to censored
cultural and political materials.

The second example comes from Riga, Latvia, where the E-lab artist
organisation started real-audio net cast experiments in 1997 (OZONE - net
radio Open Zone). Ozone used the real-audio servers of the Internationale
Stadt Berlin and Xs4all in Amsterdam for their first programs. After their
first net cast of audio experiments by young Latvian artists and musicians,
the organisers were warned by Latvian authorities that continuation of
their net-casting experiments would be subject to juridical prosecution.
Apparently the Latvian law provides for a premise stating that any audio
server opening more than 25 lines would be regarded as a radio station and
was not allowed to function without an official state permit, regardless
whether these servers resided within the Latvian territory or not.

It is questionable in how far this legislation is indeed in place, but the
definitions of roles are the most interesting aspect here. Apparently, the
average use of a web site, the number of people visiting a site to obtain
information or download files, seems less important than the fact that an
existing media model is emulated in a new medium. Millions of people
visiting a regular web site seem less of a control problem for media
regulators than the harmless micro scale distribution of copyright free
public cultural content, as in the OZONE case. The redefinitions of media
policy appear to lack understanding of the dynamics and nature of the
medium they seek to come to terms with.

Heie Treier notes that the new nations arising from the former 'East' find
themselves suddenly immersed in the information society, without a clear
understanding of this new context or a proper frame of reference. The
Baltic case illustrates that the impact and development of networking
technologies can not be separated from local specificities, nor from the
socio-political framework at large. The assimilation of the new
communication environment in these societies will therefore remain the
subject of intense and critical debate.


* Interstanding 1:

* Interstanding 2:

* Peter Lamborn Wilson's TAZ text and other materials can be found at:

* The discussion of Barlow's Cyberspace Independence Declaration can be
found in the section 'Threads' of nettime's ZKP 2:

* Xchange / OZONE:

* Art + Communication 1 (Riga, Latvia):

* Art + Communication 2 (Riga, Latvia):