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Interview. The prominent media critic Geert Lovink says these are “desperate, nihilist times.” But it’s not too late to take back the internet.

Geert Lovink: ‘Stop using Gmail’

The Dutch professor Geert Lovink is one of the leading theoreticians of contemporary media. His major thesis is that we need to stop thinking about the media when we talk about the internet. The world wide web is not just a communication tool: It is all of society, including health, the organization of knowledge, logistics infrastructure, climate assessments. And yet its influence remains to a large extent invisible. He recently held two seminars at the University of Rome, where we spoke with him. (The interview questions have been condensed.)

The FBI has demanded that Apple build software to bypass the iPhone lock of the San Bernardino terrorists. Apple has refused. What do you think of the impasse?

We should thank Assange, Anonymous, Snowden and the thousands of less visible cyber-rights activists that expose the close collaborations between NSA and the “stacks,” as Bruce Sterling calls the big American IT/internet players. The fact that Apple now stands up is due to this massive pressure from society over the past years and decades. Protests also coming from inside the industry itself — including their own workers. People do care about their privacy and have broken the Silicon Valley social contract, which stated that users get services for free in exchange for their personal data. We’re no longer in the care-free society of 2007. So far so good. What we should discuss is how slow the issues trigger down these days. Why is it so hard for us to scale up? Everything speeds up, except our resistance. Occupy happened three or four years after the financial meltdown. How many decades did it take to build up the massive pressure at the Paris climate summit of December 2015?

We live under a real-time media regime. We can communicate instantaneously with everyone around the globe, for almost no cost. Memes spread at the speed of light. Why can’t social movements emerge in a similar fashion? This is the demand “accelerationism” makes, and I fully support it. We need to move away from sharing and responding and design new forms of organization that are not just decentralized, inclusive and democratic, but also up to speed: from a discursive to a coordinated network. This is for me the political dimension of the logistical turn in the humanities (from Keller Easterling, Alan Liu to John Durham Peters and many others).

This shift goes further than the classic “what’s to be done?” question. For instance, we are nearly three years into the Snowden case and 1 percent of his documents have become available in the public domain. How come? It is charming to celebrate the [Italian] slow food movement and promote sustainable information digestion, but I sincerely worry when urgent matters are on the table. Are we, for instance, quick enough in our solidarity with the refugees? The problem here is that the internal clock of our social body is, still, not adjusted to the real-time potentials of the computer networks.

Julian Assange is undoubtedly the personality who made hacking glamorous. He is the sponsor of the idea that information wants and has to be free. Can you explain the dialectics between the global reverberations of Wikileaks and the relevant tendency to control communication activities?

You are probably aware that I am one of the few Assange critics who comes from the same circles. It is important to support his case and become part of the investigative work on the thousands, if not millions of documents that Wikileaks and others such as Cryptome have so far published. However, I do not share Assange’s celebrity approach and conspiratorial worldview (which, in my view, are related). In comparison to NGOs and social movements across the globe, the Assange work ethic has been disastrous.

There are a lot of elements from hacker culture that we should openly reject and criticize. We should not create and adore our martyrs. In the same way, we should demand from Assange that he stops calling himself “editor-in-chief” (as though he runs some media organization) and accept that his supporters work in collective structures. I cannot put these concerns on the side and see them somehow secondary to the important political work of exposing the global elites and their secret services. Wikileaks does not exist without the grass roots work of the cyber multitudes. His obsession with global news outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times is counter-productive. Because of the personality-driven approach of Wikileaks we’re only using a small percentage of the potential that is out there to actually do something with all these amazing and shocking documents. A few weeks ago, at Transmediale in Berlin, I attended the very first meeting of Snowden archivists, organized by Berliner Gazette. There is such a huge backlog that I sometimes wish we had a global moratorium on scandals.

To return to your question, when it comes to radical transparency, I fully support Assange. Conservative thinkers in Germany (Bul Chul-Han) and the Netherlands (Paul Frissen) judge the transparency of the NSA and Wikileaks as one and the same. I disagree with such an analysis. Most hackers are careful and precise in what they publicize. A lot of their efforts are focused on the protection of the privacy of individual users, as much as this is possible, for instance through the promotion of Adblocker, the Tor browser and PGP for email. Even more inspiring are the campaigns to warn against inevitable security breaches inside voting machines. Also think of the current debates, with implications for all of us, about the secretive TTIP talks, and why it is our interest to make these trade negotiations accessible. Or think of the Democracy in Europe movement, initiated by Yanis Varoufakis, which started off with the demand to open up the Eurogroup meetings. These are all specific demands that cannot be reduced to some cynical demand that “everything has to be transparent.”

In internet culture, the absence of borders was taken for granted. Now borders are starting to become established. Is there a sunset of the idea of the network as a global medium? Are we seeing a redesign of economic, social and political hierarchies, as is happening offline?

Networks are not just infrastructure or protocols, they are organizational forms. Networks shape the society. At least, until recently. In my latest book Social Media Abyss, I state, together with many others, that the dominant form these days is not the Castells’ network society but platform capitalism. Networks still exist but they are sub-forms that run underneath or inside the platform and lack autonomy. This tendency may look like an opposite development from the one you sketch. Of course there is geo-blocking, the walled gardens of Facebook and the Chinese Firewall. But our own networks are overruled not because of some fragmentation but because of an incredible process of centralization of software and infrastructure. They suffer from hypergrowth and inflation.

But there is hope. Networks can return at any time, and funny enough will regain their utopian energies shortly, which they arguably lost in the dotcom days of the late ‘90s. This is what my dear Sydney friend Ned Rossiter and I have been working on for quite some time: the proposal of organized networks that are capable of technological sovereignty. The informal structure of networks have the future precisely because old social signifiers such as family, church and party no longer appeal to the majority of the population. This is why we should not write off the network too soon and search for structures in which they thrive and remain independent.

In your reflection internet once had a laboratory capacity, anticipating and defining transformations, which got later taken over by capitalism. Is this still the case, considering the prominence of big data and social media? What does it mean when we that say that the network is now integrated within the capitalistic system?

The fight over network architecture is the big struggle of our time. There is a lot at stake, both for civil society, governments and business. These three have conflicting interests. For a long time the post-Cold War “internet governance” consensus ruled. After Snowden, the engineering bureaucracy lost its grip on developments, symbolized in “the internet is broken” phrase. The question is who the new players will be. When will intellectuals, artists and politicians with a thorough technical expertise finally take center stage? Google and Facebook and a few others are becoming more and more powerful. The current statistics are depressing. Is this the internet that we were fighting for?

In recent years, activists and theorists considered “sharing” a magical concept that could somehow run parallel to existing capitalism. In this idea sharing embodied an exodus from capitalism via a network of businesses that worked according to a non-capitalistic logic. Fast forward and the sharing economy is considered the very core of the contemporary capitalist enterprise. What do you make of this shift?

At first we would say that this is a classic case of capitalist appropriation. For me, sharing is something special, it’s a gift, connected to a ritual. Sharing is by no means something automated or cold. It is the precise opposite of the business transaction. I never got what Uber or Airbnb were sharing — certainly not their profit, or losses for that matter. The problem occurred because we have been neglecting the role of the new intermediates: The internet ideology emphasizes the disruption of the old ones, but remains silent over the new ones. Evgeny Morozov and others recently emphasized the “rent extraction” aspect. Please follow how Pando Daily is reporting about all this from San Francisco. To formulate it bluntly, Uber and the rest are the new parasites that do not add anything productively to the economy. Uber is not buying new cars, and Airbnb is not building new apartments. In many countries they even tried the argument that they did not have to pay added value tax and income tax because they were not a business.

For the sharing economy, the connection between innovation and jobs insecurity is normal. How is it possible to break this connection that devalues both cognitive and manual work? How can we loosen the strong bonds between research in the name of “innovation” and the existent structures that are dominated by the short-term profit logic?

Building the commons together would be the short answer. What we need to do is to bring together the positive building of new initiative with the popular defense of its old forms, such as public health, public libraries, public parks and beaches, public schools, and universities, and so on. It is important in terms of coalition building to bring the two together, and go on the offense … [and] protest the takeover of public infrastructure. Demand an immediate moratorium on the selling out of public housing and bring that together with the Airbnb debates in your area and join new forms of hybrid civic engagement on a local level. This includes the internet itself. We need to take back the public infrastructure that was taken away from us. Stop using Gmail and demand the local servers back that were decommissioned a while ago. And if you need inspiration, go and find the positive examples on websites such as http://p2pfoundation.net/.

You seem to believe in a redesign of digital sensibility. Could you tell us the strategy that you think we need to use to succeed in such a difficult task?

Let’s not portray technology as difficult. It’s fun, at least when we do it together, in hacker spaces, privacy cafes, maker labs and so on. Sensibility starts with the Latourian strategy of making things visible. One of the most urgent things to do right now would be open up our smartphones and tablets, start mass awareness campaigns on how the app economy functions, how filters and algorithms works. Coding classes and courses are necessary on all levels. In the past years we’ve witnessed a massive deskilling of the working population, mainly thanks to social media. In the classes I give at the master’s level, students no longer even know the simple blog software of WordPress or HTML and present their Facebook pages as their only online presence. And they are supposed to be emerging professionals. And these are digital natives. In the end, they only know how to navigate the corporate platforms with little or no understanding of what’s going on behind the smooth interfaces.

How is it possible to avoid the temptation of resentment against the bad habits involved in the massive use of communication technologies, keeping the critical spirit, spreading awareness of the social and political consequences of platform capitalism?

By practicing the art of metamorphosis. We need to reinvent ourselves every now and then and not dig into existing positions. How can we dismantle resentment? This is the big challenge of our times, for Europe and the West. It is not enough to insist on political correctness. We need to establish new encounters. I am aware that this is a Christian motive. Maybe computers are Christian machines, after all. Umberto Eco was right in his distinction between Mac as a Catholic and Windows as a Protestant interface design. But both of them are Christian operating systems. Networks connect. They create community. Let’s emphasize that in these desperate, nihilist times.