The networked society and its outsides: Interview with Geert Lovink
(photo and interview: Ulises Mejias, Creative Commons 2008)
Geert Lovink is a media theorist, net critic and activist (bio, blog, publications). He is the founding director of the Amsterdam-based Institute of Network Cultures, where I sat with him to chat on May 22.
SEARCH ENGINES AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY
Ulises Mejias: Have you heard about Rushmoredrive.com? It’s a search engine for the Black community. It’s in English, and I guess the idea is that it functions as a Google for Black people. Whatever search they perform, it’s going to organize and bring up results that the search engine thinks are of more interest or relevance to the user. And obviously the next step is that we have a search engine for Muslims, and a search engine for Gays, and a search engine for every minority. So I guess my question is basically: Will there still be margins within the information society when everybody has their own custom-designed search algorithm?
Geert Lovink: Well, one of the margins is the relative drop of the importance of English on the Web because of the growing presence of other languages. It’s a relatively small group of people who speak English and so its influence is shrinking very rapidly. That’s a fact. If we look at the search engine market, there are very serious competitors to Google, and they are not where we might look. The biggest one is Baidu, which is in Mandarin only. Google has no entrance to the Chinese market to speak of, and it’s the fastest growing market of internet users. Is that a margin? No. Is Baidu going to focus on a certain type of identity? No…
UM: You don’t think that market is going to segment itself according to different Chinese identities (cultural, ethnic, sexual, etc.)?
GL: No. I don’t think so. The world of the Internet is going to be divided into large language groups to start with. But I don’t see language as an identity… I don’t think we’ll get very far if we think of English, Spanish, Arab, Mandarin or Hindi as ‘identity.’ That’s not very useful. I associate language with something else, with a general vehicle for communication. What you are talking about –these marginal niche markets for search engines– are very interesting, but the really interesting sub segments of the search engine market are focusing on something else. For instance: image search. Can you search an image that is not tagged based on image patterns? I want to see all the fragments where someone is wearing a red hat. So now we are seeing search engines coming up that focus on these kinds of queries.
UM: Specialized searches, like 0xdb?
GL: Right. Yes. It’s a niche market. It’s focusing on a general audience, but very likely not everybody is going to use it, or understand how to make use of these specific search technologies.
UM: So you think identity-based search engines are going to suffer the same fate of identity-based politics? There’s a limit to how useful they’ll be?
GL: And also they are language-based, so that puts a big limit on them. Unless of course they are going to multiply themselves in other language areas. Otherwise it’s going to be a very small pool of users.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE NETWORK
UM: This is what you wrote in Blogging, the nihilist impulse: “blogs are witnessing and documenting the diminishing power of mainstream media, but they have consciously not replaced its ideology with an alternative.” You continue to say that “there is a sense that the Network is the alternative” but at the same time you question this alternative and say that users have nowhere else to go. You write: “There is no other world… What’s declining is the Belief in the Message. That is the nihilist moment, and blogs facilitate this culture as no platform has ever done before.” So, I was interested in comparing this notion of having nowhere else to go with Galloway and Thacker’s concept in The Exploit of an anti-web, something which they say we haven’t even begun to conceptualize…
GL: Well, I very much hope so, that there will be something like that. You can dream of something, whether it is utopian, dystopian, or alternative, subcultural or subversive, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I wrote that. Of course, there is an implicit reference that another world is possible. But I don’t think that this other world can be achieved merely through the design of alternative media spaces. I don’t think activists believe that through alternative media practices they can achieve their political goals, or set up structures –social and economic– such that capitalism will be reformed. I see very clearly the limits of the network discourse as such. When it comes to the formation of social movements or political forces in general, I see it more the other way around, and I’ve always seen it the other way around: that political forces come into being first, and then interact with the current media. And if there are groups within these movements that make clever use of the new media of their time, we can see very interesting uses. But I’ve never seen it the other way around, and I think it’s very naïve to believe that through Second Life or the blogosphere or whatever, that we can come to new political formations. At best we can speak of interesting subcultures or subcurrents, I think that’s possible. But we cannot have this kind of utopian idea, that these media products that we buy somehow embed some alternative future. No. We know what they embed. They are hard core architectures that have been designed by IT engineers and so on. They are not futuristic structures for a better world. If only it was like that! But we know enough about the people who design these machines, the circumstances under which they are produced, to know that they are an exact mirror of our society, at best.
UM: Is it necessary to stand outside the network in order to critique it?
GL: I think these days people would see it as a radical politics, or at least a challenge, to imagine a daily existence on the net without [companies like] Google… That’s our challenge. To imagine that. Can we position ourselves outside the “cloud”? Can we build alternative data centers that will not be surveilled? These are real questions.
SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND NEW MEDIA
UM: In The Principle of Notworking you quote Hardt and Negri’s argument that it takes a network to fight a network. But then you write that “networks might be an unsuitable form to win a fight… network discourse cannot integrate –let alone imagine– outside point of views.” Can you elaborate on that?
GL: This is a serious question for activists and social movements, which tend to be 10 to 15 years behind, so they are quite unfamiliar with the network logic, they haven’t seriously engaged with it. So there is not a radical critique of the network, unfortunately. If they are unfamiliar with the network discourse, with the network episteme, what’s going to happen? Some elements are going to be adopted, maybe. Obviously not the very widespread social networking practices, as we know them. It’s hilarious to think of a social networking site for activists, it’s just not going to happen. The paranoia is so widespread.
UM: Really? You don’t think that has already happened? I’m thinking of sites like TrueMajority or MoveOn. They think of themselves as networks, and using the power of networks…
GL: But not using contemporary tools. They envision themselves as networks, but in a different way. They take certain elements of the network, but they also distance themselves from the everyday use. It’s a bit funny. A lot of social movements throughout the last century thrived on the energy, the creativity and the imagination of young people. But these new networks are not tapping into the creativity of young users. That’s weird!
UM: Maybe some people within those movements have tried, but I think they run into the problem you’ve identified elsewhere: how do we facilitate large-scale [networked] conversations that do not only make sense but also have an impact?
GL: Or how can we have a small conversation without having to suffer all the time from the suspicion that authorities are tapping into the conversation for their own use. Most social movements since the rise of neoliberalism have been marginalized, and still are. So to have the self-confidence to break out of these limitations, and still stick to the agenda of radical politics… these are two things that don’t go together very well. So radical politics limits itself, therefore, to very strict offline engagements and events.
UM: Do you think maybe in the end that will be beneficial to them? Maybe they won’t spend so many resources chasing a dream that won’t materialize?
GL: It’s possible, but there is still a big problem with that, in that you do not really allow yourself to grow into a popular movement. And there are plenty of opportunities where small movements can transform themselves into popular movements: anti-war, healthcare, etc. And that requires new and effective ways of communicating as well.
ETHICS AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF SYSTEMS
UM: I’ve been thinking about the impact of Napster on ethics, and how within a short period of time, the code regulating a particular ethical standard was redefined, affecting masses of people. Do you think technosocial networks will usher in an age of viral ethics, with one code of ethics overruled by another, and another?
GL: That’s what we’ve seen happening. When I hear the word ‘ethics’ I think of the tragic decline of netiquette, and how Napster replaced that. Well defined codes of conduct were more or less in place within a group of internet users that still had direct or indirect contact with the first generation of those who designed the architectures and consequently the ethics that came with them. And in the late 1990’s we’ve seen these netiquette rules collapsing, because they could not be reproduced any more from one person to the next. That chain fell apart, because of the rapid growth. It was not possible anymore, as it was possible in 1995, to introduce users to the do’s and don’t’s… And instead, as you say, these large systems of anonymous exchange, like Napster, suddenly appeared; mass anonymity, not one singular person as “the” anonymous person, but mass anonymity, which creates this kind of breakdown of rules. And nothing else replaced it, to be honest.
UM: But aren’t masses on their way to becoming ‘smart mobs’ with the help of these social network technologies?
GL: The one thing you can say is that media events are creating these temporary masses, but they are mass manufactured, in fact. A lot of the social protests we see these days already have this extreme temporality, a complete lack of any sustainable structure. That’s a given of political life today, that these movements and these events come up very quickly, a lot of people gather, and then they fall apart. We’ve seen that happening in “real” life, in cities, but we’ve seen that happening on the Internet as well. Very rapid growth and disintegration of these structures, sometimes even within days. Short lived, but at a mass scale.
UM: And useful?
GL: Well, they can have an impact, indeed. So useful, yes, but sometimes without enduring consequences.