Strategies for media activism

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Posted by Geert Lovink on December 02, 1997 at 13:12:28:

Strategies for media activism
By Geert Lovink

Presentation at the forum event of 'Code Red'
The Performance Space, Sydney, November 23, 1997

"Erkenne die Lage" (Gottfried Benn)

It is my personal commitment to combine cyber pragmatism and media
activism with pleasurable forms of European nihilism. Not the apocalyptic,
conservative culture of complaint which post modernism has left behind,
but short heroic epics on the everyday life of the media, reporting from
within the belly of the Beast, fully aware of its own futile existence,
compared to the millennial powers to be. We ani's no salespeople, trying
to sell the award winning model amongst the digital cities, some exotic
Amsterdam blend of old and new media or yet another disastrous set of
ideas, made in Europe. Instead, we are trying to exchange models,
arguments and experiences on how to organise our cultural and political
activities, finance media projects and create informal networks of trust
that will make live in this Babylon bearable.

New media is a dirty business, full of traps and seductive offers to work
for 'the other side'. There are no ways to keep your hands clean. The
computer is a deadly machine when it comes to inclusion and exclusion. We,
the workers on the conceptual forefront of cyberculture, have to admit
that we are (not yet) politically correct and have failed so far to pass
the PC-test. This is not because these criteria are deliberately
neglected, but because the passions lie elsewhere. For the time being, the
struggle is about the definition of the terms under which the 'information
society' will become operational. The 'Short Summer of the Internet', now
rushing to its close, is about the production of cultural and political
concepts, which may, or may not, be implemented on a much larger scale.
What network architecture will be used? Do we accept the dominant software
and screen design or do we look for alternatives? Is there still space for
theory and reflection, meaningless playing around? Is the production
stress overruling creativity? Later on we will find current concepts back
as 3D-animation, java scripts or human-machine interfaces. The terminal
workers, producing one demo after another (as Peter Lunenfeld has recently
described it) are determining future formats of the new media which will
shortly become standards, ready to be commodified. A further growth of new
media products may need a phase of consolidation on the level of
marketable products. The 'digital revolution' could therefore soon reach
its counter-revolution, the Digital Thermidor (let us all hope that it
will not turn violent against its Wired-visionaries that once so
passionately preached their 'Californian ideologies'). There is less and
less reason to make fun of 'Dinosaur behaviour' of the apparently outdated
and 'tired' multinational corporations. Restructuring programs are in
place now. The CEOs have listened carefully to the cyber-libertarian
visionaries and have drawn their own conclusions. The network economy is
well under way - and so is the 'Long Crisis'. Kevin Kelly's saga of the
'Long Boom' (in Wired magazine) turned out to be a hilarious mistake in
the light of the current Asian (now global) currency crisis and its
simultaneous environmental disaster. But sure he will keep on insisting
that we simply have to route around the problems. Economics are benevolent
if you are on a religious mission. As John Perry Barlow once said about
the Internet, connecting every synapse with any other synapse on the
world: "It is not a good thing or bad thing, but it is a holy thing." And
believers can ignore any crisis, as long as it not theirs.

"Holding the Negative." (Andre Simon) The political economy of new media
is not a favourite topic on conferences that deal with art and technology.
Dry economic facts about the upcoming take-over of this emerging branch
may spoil the celebration of the Computer-Aided-Renaissance. The belief
that many small Davids can beat a few big Goliaths is still around. The
ideology of economic liberalism has entered the rational of the creative
part of the virtual class in a deep, unconscious way. The same can be
said of state officials who still hold powerful positions In financing new
media projects. But the fact is that the gold rush is over. Prices of
web-design have fallen sharply. We can see the rise of the html-slaves,
employed without contracts or health insurance, producing code for little
or no money. Small businesses disappear, not only ISPs but also in the art
and design sector. On the macro-economic level we have witnessed an
unprecedented series of mergers in the telecommunication and media sector.
This has led, for example, to the near monopoly position of WorldCom
(which now owns 60% of the access business in the USA). Or take the
Spanish telecom giant Telefonica and its Intranet, which will soon control
the entire Spanish speaking world. We do not need to mention Microsoft

This may only be the return of the suppressed, after a period of
post-modern comfort, in this case late monopoly capitalism. The
undermining of the promising small and decentralised 'many-to-many'
ideology also comes from within the IT-sector. The development of the
ultimate multi-media device, web-TV, turns out to be a classical Trojan
Horse. The much hated one-to-many television, news and entertainment
industries have now found a way to neutralise a potential competitor. Soon
the content of web and TV will be the same. In this respect, all these
push media are claiming the available bandwidth. Older features of the
Net, like the news groups, with their democratic and decentralised logic,
are dying out and are being replaced by monitored and edited on-line
magazines and chat rooms. Internal surveillance of net-use and private
e-mail is on the rise due to the introduction of intranets of buildings,
companies and entire countries. Another alarming tendency may be the
withdrawal from the Internet of universities and research centres that are
now working with much faster and secure computer networks. This dark
picture results in he question -- "What elements of the glory days of net
hype, dating back to the period of 1989-1992, remain? Perhaps the answer
is the phrase "On the Internet no one knows you are a dog." Indeed, and no
one cares: a tragic end of the once so liberating politics of identity.
What counts now are the commercial use of avatars, the number of hits on a
site ("2 million a day"), the rise of webvertisement and the final putting
into place of electronic commerce.

What form of organisation media activism could take? While some truly
discouraging stories from the economic forefront are on the rise, it is
good to keep returning to the old question:" What is to be done?" A return
of negative thinking could play an important role in the development of
strategies for media activism. There is plenty of good will, and ruthless
cynicism. What lacks is playful negativism, a nihilism on the run, never
self-satisfied. Not just nomadic as a Lebensphilosophie, but rather
tactical, an ever changing strategy of building infrastructures and
leaving them, when the time has come to leave the self build castles and
move onwards. The explorations into the fields of the negative not only
imply the hampering the evil forces of global corporate capitalism, but
also formulating a critique of the dominant alternative formula: the Non
Governmental Organisation. The NGO is not just a model for aid
organisations that have to correct the lack of government policies. It is
today's one and only option to change society: open up an office, start
fund-raising, lease a xerox-machine, send out faxes... and there you have
your customised insurrection. "How to make to most of your rebellion." The
professionalism inside the office culture of these networked organisations
is the only model of media-related politics if we want to have a
(positive) impact, or "make a difference." (as the ads use To call it). We
will soon have to reject this bureaucratic and ritualised media model
altogether, with its hierarchies, management models, its so-called
efficiency. "The Revolution will not be Organised." These are not the
words of some chaotic anarcho-punkers or eco-ravers, calling for
spontaneous revolt, right now, tonight. The crisis of the Organisation is
our 'condition humane' in this outgoing media age. And it may as well be
the starting point for a new, open conspiracy that is ready to anticipate
on the very near cyber-future. Not anymore as a Party or Movement, nor as
a network of offices (with or without headquarter), new forms of
organisation may be highly invisible, not anymore focussed on
institionalization. These small and informal communities easily fall apart
and regroup in order to prevent the group from being fixed to a certain

"The site less visited." Media activism nowadays is not about the
expression of truth or a higher goal. It is about the art of getting
access (to buildings, networks, resources), hacking the power and
withdrawal at the right moment. The current political and social conflicts
are way too fluid and complex to be dealt with in such one-dimension
models like propaganda, "publicity" or "edutainment." It is not sufficient
to just put your information out on a home-page, produce a video or
pamphlet etc. and than just wait until something happens. The potential
power of mass media has successfully been crippled. Today, reproduction
alone is meaningless. Most likely, tactical data are replicating
themselves as viruses. Programmed as highly resistant, long lasting
memes, the new ideas are being constructed to weaken global capitalism in
the long term. No apocalyptic or revolutionary expectations here, despite
all rumours of an upcoming Big Crash of the financial markets. Unlike the
Russian communist world empire, 'casino capitalism' (Robert Kurz) will not
just disappear overnight. Heaps of deprivation and alienation is ahead of
us. But this should not be the reason to lay back and become console
socialists. We need organisations of our time, like the global labour
union of digital artisans, networks of travellers, mailing list-movements,
a gift economy of public content. These are all conceptual art pieces to
start with, realised on the spot, somewhere, for no particular reason,
lacking global ambition. These models will not be envisioned by this or
that Hakim Bey. They are lived experiences, before they become myths,
ready to be mediated and transformed on their journey through time.

Media activism constantly mediates between the real and the virtual,
switches back and forth, unwilling to choose sides for the local or the
global. Tactical media are creating temporary hybrids of old school
political data and the aesthetics of new media, which deals with
interactivity and interface design (see the article by David Garcia and me
in nettime/ZKP4). As a next step, this is being implemented on both the
level of the social personal level where our wetware bodies meet, and that
of the 'non-located' technical network architecture. Activists are
developing now 'negative software', (anti-)racism search engines,
(temporary) public terminals, free groupware, anti-aesthetic browsers
against both Microsoft and Netscape, electronic parasites that live on
corporate software and content.

Recording is not enough., equipped with tons of web cams can
be fortunate and collect evidence, but it can as well add to the spreading
paranoia about the surveillance by the Corporation-State. Sometimes it may
be appropriate to detect and delete camera's. Neither eco-fundamentalist
nor techno-utopian, media activists are taking risks and acting freely.
This may sometimes be in a criminal way, if necessary (like computer
hackers), thereby ignoring legal standards (censorship, copyright). The
narrow frameworks that reformists have negotiated over time, like
'privacy' and 'freedom of expression' have to be defended and practiced
openly. These can only be guaranteed with the help of an independent,
democratic media structure, not owned or controlled by the state. Big
media corporations will be the last to defend media freedom. It would be
foolish to expect anything in this respect from Murdoch, Bertelsmann or
Time-Warner. The same can be said of the efforts of isolated political
lobbying groups which fight for better legislation...

A 'light' and independent media infrastructure is not merely
expressing diversity. It is not enough to correct the main strain media
and facilitate communities with their own channels. Being a
'difference engine' on the level of representation may put out a lot of
use full public content, but it does not touch on the 'media question'.
What interests us most are the ideological structures which are written
into the software and architecture. But is not enough to subvert or
pervert this powerful and still mysterious structure. It is possible
to continue the earlier approaches of freeware and shareware within
the now hyper-commercial environment of new media. The same can be said
of the efforts to develop databases of free content, a now still
marginal activity that will soon gain importance once everyone will
have to pay for the content to download. This public sphere cannot come
into being in a purely global, commercial environment and obviously
also not in places where the state has absolute control over the
nation's intranet and firewalls. It is in this 'third place', the
public part of cyberspace, that the media activism will start to

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