9 September 2002

Date: Mon, 9 Sep 2002 08:26:14 +0100
From: John Armitage <john.armitage@UNN.AC.UK>
Subject: [CSL]: Dark Fiber

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Forward From: geert lovink [mailto:geert@xs4all.nl]
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Dark Fiber
Tracking Critical Internet Culture

Geert Lovink
The MIT Press
September 2002
ISBN 0-262-12249-9
7 x 9, 394 pp.
$29.95/#19.95 (CLOTH)


From The MIT Press announcement:

According to Sydney-based media critic Geert Lovink, the Internet is being closed off by corporations and governments intent on creating a business and information environment free of dissent. Calling himself a radical media pragmatist, Lovink envisions an Internet culture that goes beyond the engineering culture that spawned it to bring humanities, user groups, social movements, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), artists, and cultural critics into the core of Internet development.

In Dark Fiber, Lovink combines aesthetic and ethical concerns and issues of navigation and usability without ever losing sight of the cultural and economic agendas of those who control hardware, software, content, design, and delivery. He examines the unwarranted faith of the cyber-libertarians in the ability of market forces to create a decentralized, accessible communication system. He studies the inner dynamics of hackers' groups, Internet activists, and artists, seeking to understand the social laws of online life. Finally, he calls for the injection of political and economic competence into the community of freedom-loving cyber-citizens, to wrest the Internet from corporate and state control.

The topics of Dark Fiber include the erosion of email, bandwidth for all, the rise and fall of dotcom mania, the fight for a public Internet time standard, the strategies of Internet activists, the ups and down of community networks, mailing list culture, and collaborative text filtering. Stressing the importance of intercultural collaboration, Lovink includes reports from Albania, where NGOs and artists use new media to combat the country's poverty and isolation; from Taiwan, where the September 1999 earthquake highlighted the cultural politics of the Internet; and from Delhi, where the Sarai new media center explores free software and the digital commons.


Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture

Geert Lovink, The MIT Press, September 2002

(Arranged translations so far in Italian, Spanish, German and Japanese)

Table of Contents:


Introduction: Twilight of the Digirati


On Speculative Media Theory
Portrait of the Virtual Intellectual

Case Studies:

The Digital City - Metaphor and Reality
The Nettime Mailinglist, the Early Years

Crystals of Net Criticism:

Language? No Problem
A Push Media Critique
Mass Psychology of the Net: A Proposal
Nettimes, not Swatch Time
Fragments of Net Criticism
Sweet Erosions of E-mail


Tirana, Culture after the Final Breakdown
Taiwan, 921 Aftershocks
Delhi, New Media Center Sarai

Dynamics of Net Culture:

Radical Media Pragmatism
Network Fears and Desires
Short History of 90s Cyberculture
The Importance of Meetspace
Tactical Media - an Insider's Guide

Reality Check:

Media in the New Europe
Soros and the NGO-question
Information Warfare
Kosov@: War in the Age of Internet

Towards a Political Economy:

Cyberculture in the Dotcom Age
The Rise and Fall of Dotcommania
Hi-Low: The Bandwidth Dilemma



Dark Fiber starts when the party is over, in the post-dotcom recession era. Ignoring the libertarian culture of blame, which accuses both the government and 'the market' for the tech wreck, it sets out on a critical examination of actual Internet culture. After a good laugh about the absurd dotgone business plans it is better to prepare for tough battles to come. There is little time for post-bubble cynicism. Internet wars are on the rise. Fights over intellectual property, domain names, repressive legislation, corporate monopolies and censorship are just about to begin. The future will not merely be technological. This study argues that in order to understand and participate in the fight over the Internet a form of 'cultural competence' is required.

The proposed 'net criticism' is not so much targeted against the values of Internet pioneers from the pre-dotcom age--those with a belief in decentrality, the right to own your own words, the idea of sharing resources, code and content, and anonymity remain essential and worth defending. Rather, it expresses the growing disbelief that 'the market' is the appropriate partner in defending and defining, Internet freedom. The libertarian hackers' version of a do-it-yourself capitalism, with worthy, anti-monopolistic intentions and the promotion of 'true' market forces, has proven unable to beat big software, telecom and media players who all have their vested interests in dismantling these core Internet values.

Framed within the broader concept of 'post-1989' cultural policies, Dark Fiber proposes that the theory of new media needs to be extended beyond the realm of digital aesthetics and the still dominant body-machine paradigm within cyberculture. The Internet is no longer sold as a disembodied spiritual realm. With business tightening its grip, the role of the metaphysical imagination is quickly fading away and is being replaced by a reduced version of the Internet as a reliable work, shopping and education environment. The Internet is not a parallel universe but a deeply political, legal and economic infrastructure, in a permanent flux. Caught between national and corporate interests, partly privatized, while simultaneously in search of 'global governance,' Internet standards are constantly being negotiated.

Instead of calling for restrictive regulations there is an urge felt to design and practice a 'digital public domain' developed by a wide range of social and cultural partners. These multi-disciplinary efforts result in a demand for a public infrastructure which will utilize the often unused Internet capacity (called 'dark fiber') for multiple educational and creative purposes. In the conceptual vacuum which the dotcom era has left behind, a rich and critical Internet culture has hit the surface, offering sustainable and imaginative alternatives to both corporate and government attempts to contain the Internet.

In order to frame an agenda for a creative and radical pragmatism which leaves behind the cultural pessimism of post-modernity, leftist technophobia and dotcom delusions, Dark Fiber investigates and formulates a political economy of the Internet. Besides debunking the ideological parameters of utopian promises embodied in magazines such as Wired, Dark Fiber examines the inner workings of social networks beyond intention and rhetoric. It studies the materiality of online communities by looking into the economics of Internet culture and its group dynamics.

There is still enough room to explore the undiscovered potentials of, for example, peer to peer networks, free software, alternative browsers and user interfaces. However, if these concepts and prototypes want to be successful it is necessary for the 'geek' engineer culture to make a 'cultural leap.' Art and design in the new media context are not merely decoration created in order to compensate the boredom of the everyday. What is needed in today's technological culture is an open and equal dialogue between citizens, designers, programmers, business and governments to overcome the 'cultural divide' and shape the network society in a new way. The information infrastructure is too important to be left to technologists or e-commerce consultants.

Dark Fiber looks into the ambivalent role cyberculture is playing in the mobilization of creative potentials on the side of both producers (artists, designers, programmers, hackers and activists) and users, tamed into the role of consumers. Crucial here are the different stages of new media culture, from its mythical, speculative stage, complete with its New Age visionaries, leading to a period of hype dominated by the neo-Darwinist business New Economy agenda, culminating into a stage of numbed 'massification,' a climate dominated by online surveillance, zero privacy, viruses and filters, information overload and a diffuse paranoia about the online Other.

The essays in this book investigate the analytical concept of net criticism and its strategic implementation called 'tactical media.' The concept of tactical media has been developed to describe the new circumstances of alternative or independent initiatives which have grown away from previous oppositional or subcultural contexts into a vibrant, global new media culture, intervening with the technology itself. Internet is not just a tool. Tactical media, such as community networks, mailinglists, independent media centers, art servers, temporary media labs are not to be marginalized to the fringes of a business-dominated Internet. These cultural membranes have both initiated and responded to new hard-and software applications, have developed collaborative artistic interfaces, and have thoughtfully assessed the social consequences of globalization.

Both net criticism and tactical media are analyzed as precise sensors of cultural conditions in the digital age. Net criticism should not so much be defined as yet another emerging discipline with literary criticism and cultural studies as its predecessors, but rather it is described as a collaborative form to create networked discourses in which theory and practice, code and content, reflection and production, interface design and network architecture are closely intertwined.

Written in reflexive relationships with the development of these fields, the essays here were developed within a worldwide diversity of social and artistic networks. To stress the importance of intercultural collaboration in the field of techno-culture three travelogues were included, describing the global impact and diversity of the emerging Internet culture. In Albania, Europe's poorest and most isolated country, new media are used by NGOs and artists. In Taiwan, with the September 1999 earthquake as a pretext, cultural politics of the Internet were being discovered, while in Delhi (India) a new media center explores free software, public access and Hindi interfaces, mapping the social and cultural use of technology beyond the official rhetoric of 'digital divide.'

The concepts do not merely reflect on new media from an outsider's perspective, nor do they intend to represent a particular (alternative) lifestyle. They are written with a passionate commitment to media theory, building on more than a decade of new media experience, with the certainty that "ideas do matter" (Joseph Weizenbaum).

Some of the topics and issues raised in Dark Fiber: the erosion of e-mail, meet the virtual intellectual, the rise of NGOs and the Soros networks, bandwidth for all, the rise and fall of dotcommania, the dawn of techno mysticism, the search for sustainable social networks, the fight for a public Internet time standard, net activist strategies from counter-information to electronic civic disobedience, testing the boundaries of mailinglist culture and the art of collaborative text filtering.

Web archive: www.laudanum.net/geert.


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