NEW MEDIA CULTURE IN THE AGE OF THE NEW ECONOMY

Geert Lovink


"I have no opinion - and continue shopping." (Genc Greva)

Join the spirit of digital competition! The electronic gold-rush is well on its way. It is now or never. So you better make your personal fortune today. Internet stock have lost 40% of their value, but do not worry. The promised Long Boom (Dow Jones Index at 50.000) will bring prosperity to all, as long as we keep the faith in the gurus of the New economy. Ignore all crashes. Just hype yourself through the jungle of buzzwords, line up with the start-ups, or become one yourself on of the countless dot.coms. Gamble on the market of empty portal sites, useless domain name services, tiny Java applications, satellite Web TV demos, cute games for mobile phones, and sell out before sunset. Join the lottery of mega-mergers of the titanic telcos. Quit your job. Become a day trader, use all your guerrilla tactics on the forefront of the micro second decision makers. Burn all cash of your start-up, till it's time to jump off the bandwagon. Welcome to the Internet. The early, mythological phase of 90s digital culture is now rapidly running out of its utopian energies. There are hardly any signs left of cyberspace as an autonomous, supra-national, trans-gender sphere. According to the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones, there are no indications of a rise of the cyborg and its apparent ability to overcome patriarchal structures. The internet has proven incapable of creating its own consciousness. Instead, law and order are taking command over the last pockets of digital wilderness. "Logging onto the Net will soon be as fascinating and meaningful as picking up the phone", so Jones in her essay collection Deconstructing the Starships.

The taming of cyberculture by click 'n mortal businesses and their willing government executors took only a few years. The Net has been a successful financial speculation for some and left behind a scattered scene of small enterprises, stagnating networks and dead links for most of the early participants. The time of institutionalization, mega-mergers and security paranoia has arrived. These new conditions, driven by the Net economy's hyper growth, has a yet invisible effect on the cultural new media sector (arts, design, education), which had perceived itself for so long as ahead of the wave. Whereas start-up youngsters are speeding up towards their IPO (Initial Public Offering) epiphany and eventual sell-out, the cultural sector of the new media branch is in panic. The accumulated cultural capital now has to be safeguarded. Where to go with all these experimental interfaces, artistic interactive installations, 3D worlds, techno samples, rich alternative content, packed in databases, stored on CD-ROMs and web sites, not designed for the market in the first place? Now is the time to cash in, but the promised high value of so-called cultural content will be not rewarded any time soon, so it seems. Most money is still made with software, infrastructure and access, not with content. The interest of venture capitalists in cultural content is next to zero, with little or no cash returns or profit in sight. How to cash in when there is little or no interest in avant-garde quality concepts, with mainstream non-design and instant content proven so popular and financially successful? Back to charity? The danger of marginalization is immediate. A way back into state funded projects, museums, galleries and academia seems to be only left option for the once so mighty cultural arm of the virtual class.

Faithfully, Internet has become synonymous with the New Economy. Being merely a set of standards for so-called computer-mediated-communication, a hand full of programmers and media lab administrators in charge of these data protocols have been easily pushed aside by corporate interests and crushed by rivalries between IT giants. The quasi-neutrality of the geek/engineer made matters only worse, in a situation of high growth where anyway all participants face great difficulties of keeping up. Despite previous promises the Net has been proven incapable of armouring itself against ideology and will from now on be associated with a very specific (US-American) economic agenda. The New Economy is a mix of neo-liberal state policies, entrepreneurial myths, supported (and to a certain extent corrected) by Third Way policies as defined by Tony Blair and his adviser Anthony Giddens. A critique of this neo-liberal agenda is being reduced to emotional intelligence level of groups that feel threatened by free trade. No word here of declining social policies, the dramatic drop in levels of education, and the public sphere, a crucial term if we want to understand the original and essence of the Internet. The notion of the public is all but absent in the rhetoric of the New Economy. The shadow side of the never ending budget cuts, downsizing and restructuring are becoming apparent in the lack of skilled (IT-) workers, worldwide. The short term thinking of BusinessWeek culminates in a strange conclusion when asked what could stop the new economy from global. "The main problem will be finding enough highly skilled and computer-literate workers to staff rapidly growing information industries." No answer given who is responsible for this mess, and how both students and teachers will anytime soon reach a sophisticated level where information can be transformed into (critical) knowledge.

The paradoxical position of Internet, facing both hyper growth, conceptual regression and innovative stagnation can be illustrated with the case of web design. " Just as designers have the technology to create interactive web pages packed with sound and movement such as flash/shockwave, the future seems somewhat monochrome", Fiona Buffini characterized the state of web design in the Australian Financial Review of April 8, 2000. The small screens of mobile phones is forcing design to again dramatically reduce expectations concerning color, fonts and download speed. Similar limitations are the case for interactive television. Two steps forward, one step back? Or is it one step forward, two steps back? "Coolness as the single one criterion for a website's success has been dumped in favor of the higher plain of simplicity as main portals strive to increase speed" (Buffini). Sites such as Yahoo!, Excite, Amazon, search engines such as Google, and virtually all news organizations, from CNN to nytimes.com, which together take a majority of the click rates, represent the new breed in screen design. With no graphic art or technical experiments, all space is used to maximize the amount of text-based information on the front-page. Buffini: "Usability, it seems, has become the major task of web designers with big commercial clients. With millions of clicks a day, high ratings on the stock exchange and high, risky venture capital investment, the leading web companies cannot afford their customers to crash on some plug-in" (Buffini). Interaction design seems to have lost its battle against interface stupidity. The office metaphor of the previous decade has been exchanged for an adaptation to the newspaper front-page outlook as the dominant information architecture. In this regressive move back to the old mass media of print, references to space or navigation are no longer needed.

What is presented here as a step forward, from the adult-like grooviness to usability, is (again) light years away from the Bauhaus imperatives, in which sophisticated design was not in conflict with mass production. Telephone books, dictionaries, paper money have all had decent typography and graphic design. So why not the world's most visited websites? Is it perhaps the unholy alliance between geekness and money which has pushed the HTML designers of the first hour off their throne? The profession of interaction design has to adjust itself to the new circumstance, leaving behind only a niche of still interesting sites. Will the design branch rebel against this set back and push forward with a new visual language of esthetic functionality, embedded in a broader set of social, cultural and political a priori? Or will it adjust and accept the growing division between high, elite art and low, mass culture within cyberspace?

Amsterdam, which has always been known for its large and active alternative movements, has also seen some profound changes in the later parts of nineties in its economic and cultural landscape, as the former marginal movement participants settled down in the management of the newly founded ITC driven cultural landscape. The onslaught of market forces and their ideology of commercialism proved increasingly difficult to resist and started to influence the nature and activities of the existing media initiatives. Indeed it is remarkable how long and to what extent this new media culture had managed to remain independent from commercial interest. Exemplary for these developments is the Internet-based community network The Digital City of Amsterdam (DDS). Starting in January 1994, this project went through all phases from amateur, low-tech, non-budget grassroots initiative to a professional technology and business driven organization and finally an ICT firm. In December 1999 the users community learned with astonishment that DDS management had decided for a corporate structure in which not community building and support but business was paramount. While in the beginning (around 1994-95) DDS was functioning as a facilitator to internet access and proficiency for complete newcomers, the explosion of Internet presence has robbed it of this fundamental function. Free e-mail, web space and chat facilities are now widely and more readily available. A score of new commercial providers are offering the same or more than DDS and are massively advertising their services. This resulted in an erosion of the user base. As a platform for discussion of local issues DDS has receded in importance, despite various efforts at triggering debates around political events. Instead, DDS was turned into a facilitation structure providing the usual ICT services to its 'clients', most of who see it as a convenient funnel for one-to-one, Dutch language interface, and care little for the 'community' as a whole. The chance to turn the Digital City into a self-governed community structure was bypassed for a so-called efficient, but in the end messy, 'executive' model of governance. Very soon, the 'inhabitants' grew tired of the paltry participation instruments given to them, and the DDS coordinator, later self-appointed director, and now co-owner Joost Flint was able to exercise his authority unchallenged.

The so-called open and democratic character of the Internet is not a God-given fact. Throughout the eighties and nineties efforts have been put in by engineers and programmers to open up the academic computer networks. Their concern was not only related to access via a modem or terminals. The main battle was fought out on the level of software and network architecture. After the "short summer of the Internet" with its utopian promises during the mid-nineties, a massification of the Net has set in. The period of dotcom.mania is one of hyper growth, with users turned into click rates generating "eyeballs". Open, decentralized "citizen" networks are of no use anymore in this environment. Potential customers are only interesting because of their market profile. Within the surveilled safe Intranets of corporations with their entertainment and info businesses, (dissident) opinions are filtered out or at best treated as spin-off effects of virtual environments, the only goal of which is to generate cash flow. Communication has become unnecessary, boring, and of private concern. Open communication networks based on open source software are increasingly becoming a threat to corporations and governments. In fact, openness has become synonymous with child pornography and computer hackers.

The na´ve phase of "facilitation" is over, and all parties are gearing up for Infowar. The response to massification and regulation is the creation of an invisible cyber elite. Already for years it has become next to impossible to discuss topics on public newsgroups. Noise levels on USENET have risen to unbearable levels due to clumsy, arrogant or ill informed individuals or companies sending spam messages and advertisement to public forums. In fast growing networks people tend not to get to know each other anymore so flame wars over nothing are being unleashed, in most cases without any outcome. The effect of this is a loss of confidence in the public sphere of cyberspace, with its relatively open forums and communities. As a response, business and developer groups, as well as activists and researchers have started mailinglists and discussion forums within password protected sites. Who wants to discuss sophisticated concepts with all the booboos and weirdos who are surfing the web, looking for places to make trouble? Are you able to keep up with hundreds of e-mail messages in your inbox every day? I do not like you, and your silly opinions, so why waste precious time on opinions and attitudes one detests?

The argument of an ever rising "complexity" is used as an excuse to no longer shape the network society, but to leave this task to large corporations and a few governments. Conspiratorial "micro politics" are proposed as an escape route to hide from the expected invasion of the online masses. At the same time the (new media) arts are looking for a comfortable refuge in old institutions such as museums and galleries. The early adopters and cyber warriors, the partisans who fought at the electronic frontiers in the roaring nineties, are withdrawing into private realities, paralyzed by the economies of scale. What is "cultural intelligence" in the digital age? This is a question the Vienna-based group Public Netbase has raised in their Brussels project. Whether old or new, high or low, culture is a commodity, one of the fastest growing resources the world is currently exploiting. Arts and culture, though marginal in market capitalization, are turning now into a mysterious factor which can make and break local economies. So which concepts and ideas are "in"? What is cool and what is out? Welcome to the world of the paranoid cultural producers. A catchy concept can be turned into an Internet start-up or exclusive contract with some media organization. Have you already been accused of cultural spying? Intellectual Property fights are all over the place. Make sure to claim, patent and copyright your ideas so that you will be the one who will make money from them in the end. So you should better beware and keep brilliant ideas for yourself. Send them to your lawyer before even telling your best friends. The alternative is to give them away for free in the na´ve hope that someone will be so generous to give you some charity pocket money in the end. You choose. This is the tragic yet realistic State of the Internet 2000.

It is common knowledge that (pop) culture is a global market, a sophisticated machinery of rumors, memes, signs and images, driven by the never-ending desire to redefine the New in order to commodity "lifestyles" into products. It is here that the CultureSpyT figure appears, presenting him/herself as a curator, photographer, journalist or project developer. These cultural workers have to be situated at the forefront of the conceptual boundaries where the 20-30 years old are pushing the limits in order to reach world fame (these days measured in click rates). The Western elites are perhaps too interwoven to unleash a real culture war on the Net between, let's say, the USA and Europe. It is much easier to imagine this phenomena occurring on a strict transnational economic level. That makes the concept of "cultural intelligence" all the more interesting. Corporate spying is a booming business and so is spying amongst allies (Israel against USA, USA against Europe, etc.). Training a secret staff of national culture spies could already taking place. This could be an ideal project for a public-private partnership. Japanese corporations have specialized themselves in culture spying over the last decades. We have now arrived in the age of imitating Japanese styles and strategies. Cultural spying is certain one of them. This is the age of implementation (stealing), not innovation (invention).

With governments withdrawing from the cultural sector and the IT-sector, and a fast growing Internet business being solely interested in mainstream content generated by old media such as the printing industry, film and television, the cyber avant-garde threatens to be left alone with empty hands. Unlike pop cultures such as rock, punk or rap, the cyberculture born in the late eighties has refrained from any gesture of resistance towards the establishment. This makes its rise and fall different, less predictable, to a certain extent softer, and perhaps even more spectacular. The ruling market ideology generates the sweet illusion that there is enough space under the sun for all of the players. Now it is the turn of the civilization teams and marketers to mark territories and set rules for just behavior so that the painful struggle for profit will not be undermined by some weirdos who pretend that their Internet is an extension of the Wild West. Economy has invaded the Net, and the Net itself has turned into an economy. At least, that's the Big Picture we are confronted with in the numerous dotcom advertisements and their accompanying reports in the old media. In order to get there, key premises such as free communication and anonymity have to given up. The wild and free floating user has to be turned in a civilized, liable and accountable cyber citizen, who, like any other citizen will shop, vote, pay taxes, and shut his or her mouth.

 

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