14 11 2000
Closed Networks in an Open Society
by Geert Lovink (NL)
"Eyeballs around the WWWorld, Unite!" 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 a short period during the mid-nineties, the "short summer of the Internet", with its utopian promises, rising commercialism and radical cybercultures, a massification of the Net 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 which mere goal it becomes to generate cash flow. Communication has become unnecessary, boring, and of private concern. Open communication networks, based on open source software, are increasing becoming a thread to corporations and governments. In fact, openness has become synonymous to child pornography and computer hackers. The na´ve phase of "facilitation" is over, 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 mailing lists and discussion forums within password-protected sites. Who wants to discuss sophisticated concepts with all the booboos and weirdoes that are surfing over the web, looking for places to make trouble? Are you able to keep up with hundreds of e-mail messages one gets in into the inbox every day? What counts is exclusive, high quality information. Filter out the nonsense, whatever that may be. 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 and leave this task to large corporation and a few governments. Conspiratorial "micro politics" are proposed as an escape route to hide for 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 http://world-information.org Culture is an asset. 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, is turning now into a mysterious factor which can make and break local economies. High skilled workers can based everywhere, and will indeed moved on if a place will turned boring, or too spoiled by money (the rich only consumes culture).
So which concepts and ideas are "in"? What is cool and what is out? Welcome to the world of the paranoia 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. In the New Economy IT sector a lot of spying and intelligence work is going on. To some extend it is plain robbery. Taking ideas in order to claim, patent and copyright them so that you will be the one who will make money with them in the end. So one should better beware and keep brilliant ideas for ones self. Copyright and patent them straight away, send them to your lawyer before you even telling them to 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. That's tragic yet realistic State of the Internet 2000.
So far we are only dealing with "culture" on the level of Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" which is going on at the level of world religions and anthropology. In the ruling conservative definition culture is defined by its age and ability to be endlessly recycled and marketed as "cultural heritage". But the actual "culture business" looks rather different. It is common knowledge that (pop) culture is a global market, a sophisticated machinery of rumors, mimes, 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 Culture Spy 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 see 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.