The Dutch media theorist and activist on the role of artistic practice in the digital sphere, the need of "Cultural Intelligence" and the overestimation of technology.
Q: What are the significant aspects of artistic practice in a digitally networked society?
A: The ability to think and conceptualise networks, work in a multi-disciplinary environment and come up with new images, texts, sounds and stories, despite all the tyranny and tragedy of the new media. It is a real challenge to master the machines and programs, the budgets and administrative work while focusing on the art works themselves. This is the reason why there is so little interesting new media work to be seen. And why people are so excited if there is indeed a new work out which transcends all these limitations and difficulties. It is much easier to make an interesting video piece, simply because this technology has been around for over 35 years now. The World Wide Web is only five years young. There are still significant limitations in the digital realm, despite of all the euphoria. This is why so many artists first try to come to grips with the technology, which may seem boring and self-referential to outsiders.
Q: What should be the role of the creative community in the "Information Society"?
A: Throughout the nineties the concept of "creativity" has seen a renaissance. Scientific literature around this topic is booming. With the rise of research, the mystique surrounding the "creative factor" is facing a similar phase of hyper growth. Compare it with gourmet fashion: what is the right recipe, what ingredients to use (fresh vegetables, obviously), and most of all, how to serve the entire gorgeous multi-media network concept in the most attractive way? It all comes down to the right mix of disciplines. Not too much money, not too much technology. Art thrives under poverty. As you can see, I am sceptical about creativity. I would rather lay emphasis on education, public access and human rights, one of which is the right for housing, not just of individuals and families but also of groups and artists/activists initiatives. There will be no "information society" if people are living on the streets. A rich, diverse and creative virtuality is closely related to affordable spaces.
Q: State and military Intelligence Agencies are spending huge budgets, private and economic intelligence services are booming. What could be the role of intelligence work that deals with cultural public interest?
A: We have not yet seen a state and corporate run sector of "cultural intelligence". We might get there soon. The so-called "culture wars" are being fought mainly on a national level. Examples that I know of are in the USA, Australia and Austria. In the UK there is a phenomena of "culture industries", where culture is seen as a mysterious and fascinating factor in the process of economic recovery of run-down local communities. What we have not seen yet are "cultural spies". In the New Economy IT sector there is certainly a lot of spying and intelligence work going on. To some extent this means plain robbery. Stealing other people's ideas in order to patent and copyright them so that you will be the one to make money first. But this phenomenon has not yet been studied enough. So far we only deal with "culture" on the level of Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilization" which happens on the rather primitive level of world religions. The Western elites are perhaps too intertwined to see a "culture war" going on between, let's say, the USA and Europe. It is much easier to see these phenomena occurring on the economic level. That is what makes the concept of "cultural intelligence" all the more interesting. It is still in the realm of the possible and virtual.
Q: It has been stated quite often that not data, but meta-data are relevant, contextual/referential information being more valuable than plain "facts" - what do you think of meta-politics of the "information world"?
A: The meta-level is certainly the one where the "war on standards" is being fought out. This is the reason why there is so much sympathy for technological determinism, despite the fact that people are disgusted by other forms of determinism. There are legitimate reasons to be interested in the Laws of Media, as McLuhan called them. However, these wars are only interesting for a certain amount of time, and the outcomes are not always that interesting, or important. Is a Netscape browser really so different from a Microsoft one? Or Philips electronics from Sony? Meta-politics, I think, can only be of interest to a small number of people. There are much more important topics. We should not overemphasize the importance of technology. AC or DC? Did that really define world history?
Q: If neither technological determinism nor the so-called free market with its "vote-with-your-dollars" rhetoric are valid options - which are the forces shaping the infosphere and its societal manifestations?
A: Certainly we start speaking here about the big philosophical questions of metaphysics. I am careful about moving into this territory and leave it to the New Age believers, cyber visionaries, apocalyptic cyberpunks and their followers. There is a will to virtuality as much as there is a dirty and wild set of practices, going in all sorts of directions. I reject the idea that media, networks and information systems have a teleology. All attempts to define a greater historical aim should be criticized, or even better, perverted.