Posted: February 24, 2012 at 10:34 am
BMN: There is a struggle going on between different views of the ownership of the data produced and shared throughout the Web. While companies and governments are claiming for a stronger copyright control, individual users and on-line communities are reclaiming open-source oriented solutions that redefine many immaterial products as digital commons. You have different ideas about the solutions to face this critical situation, especially regarding the nature of commons. How do you frame the contemporary situation from this point of view? And what future scenarios do you forecast?
GL: I am not a copyright expert nor an active Creative Commons evangelist. As a radical pragmatist I use Creative Commons as often as possible. My take on this issue has been to question the uncritical use of terms such as ‘free’ and ‘open’. We should no longer listen to (free) software experts in this regard as they are still in demand in terms of employment, worldwide, and have turned out to be bad advisers when it comes to organizing sustainable sources of income for designers, artists, musicians, writers and others in the ‘content’ business. The question whether computer programmers have the freedom to change code has been too long in the centre of attention. If we care about the so-called precarious creative workers we should shift our attention away from the professions that are (still) able to organize their own income (such as programmers and academics) and start to theorize the new digital labor conditions of the global creative classes and come up with viable alternatives. It is my firm belief that these workers, across the board, are losing out when they work for big contractors and institutions and are getting a. paid less and b. work on short contracts. In these times of ongoing financial crisis we can no longer afford to celebrate ‘free’ and ‘open’ as the default on the Web and pretend that it is everyone’s private business how they are going to make a living. We need to politicize this situation and not presume that ways of making an income is a private matter. The FLOSS and CC rhetoric has kept the dominance of the classic copyright economy in place too long. We need not to go into detail why their gurus keep on defending neo-liberal capitalism. It is not difficult to see that the free code practices and the intellectual property rights businesses have been tolerating each over the years. Pirate Bay and other places where users freely ‘share’ copyrighted material are at war with the interests of the Eleviers and Springers. Free software and creative commons never created confrontational situations—and that should make us think. As alternatives they have created their own modest niches but never created antagonistic situations. After 20-30 years it is time for the cybersubculture to publicly discuss these strategies. At the moment I see the as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The free and open rhetoric needs to be dismantled. Instead we should promote a discourse which states that it is cool to pay. Sharing for free is boring and in the end a nihilist act. What we need are those bloody ‘alternative revenue models’. This demand in itself is already a cliché, which should be a worry. At least there are some positive developments at this level. Let’s mention a few: crowd sourcing, mobile money, Bitcoin, the rise of barter systems and general ‘trade union’ awareness that we simply cannot go on like this: we have to start to pay the makers directly and cut back on intermediaries. That is what peer-2-peer for me is all about–not just sharing of copyrighted material behind the back of large companies. The Occupy movement has also had a positive effect in that it open up dialogues about alternatives to the current financial system. It is encouraging to see the positive responses towards crowdfunding. Slowly we see progress made in the indy music industry. People need to be bloody inventive these days to earn a living. Here in Europe we know that state subsidy for culture and the arts is going to be further reduced. This only means that we have to organize our own economy rather sooner than later. Who else is going to do it for us? Culture has a price. Playing music, writing, researching, making theatre etc. are professional activities that cannot only be done in the evening hours.
BMN: You have a radically different approach towards social networks. On one side, Michel enthusiastically embrace all conceivable social platforms, feeding its networks with an incredible amount of data; at the moment, Michel’s Delicious account (mbauwens) lists nearly 64000 accurately tagged links. On the other, Geert is known for his hostility against commercial platforms, and in 2010 he abandoned Facebook with a public announce on his blog. How do you define your tactical approach to social media? Do you think that it drives to a different conception and practice of digital activism?
GL: In a book chapter that still has not been published Sydney-based media theorist Chris Chesher asks the simple but brilliant question: how did the computer become social? I love that approach. Social media have a long history. We could say that computer networks have been social from day one in the 1970s. The possibilities are endless in terms how people want to connect to each other—and the success of Twitter is a telling example. Our imagination at that level is not the problem. The crisis we’re facing is the methods of appropriation, the parasitic behavior of companies such as Facebook and Google that can only imagine business models of cheating and spying behind the back of the user. The problem there is not the ‘social’ elements such as befriending but the overall absence of social media as public infrastructure which genuinely belongs to everyone. We lack even the most basic elements of ‘the commons’, which in our digital context is usually only known as code and a handful of cultural artifacts. My approach towards ‘social media’ would be to define this collection of applications in the widest possible way. If something needs to reinvented it is the public, not the social. For tactical media activists such long-term goals may not be their first concern but I am of a generation that really believed (and still believes) that we have to incorporate the work on alternatives in our resistance. This cannot be postponed till after the revolution.
In the heat of the fight no one cares. Tunisians cannot be blamed for using Facebook instead of Diaspora, back in early 2011, when proper alternatives weren’t even available. That’s pointless political correctness. Instead we should ask ourselves what we are going to do with the immense human interaction that can be mobilized —and channeled—over the next months and years and how we are going to design the ‘techno-informal sphere’ that is only growing and growing? Which protocols are used and can they be changed? Defend the freedom to communicate freely and protect yourself, if necessary. The main enemy is our own naïve passion to forget the politics of the tools that we fall in love with, time and again (Technikvergessenheit). In the past I was for instance deeply into the promotion of Skype but now it is owned by Microsoft so how is that going to play out? One possible answer could be a ‘social contract’ between user and owner: I pay you for not analyzing me, to leave me alone and respect my online privacy. Stop with the free services as they will screw you, in unknown ways and let’s build up public infrastructures for general internet usage (and here we should not just think of public access through wifi).
BMN: Creative industries was a key concept in Western countries throughout the ’90s and ’00s. They were glorified in books such as Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class” and pushed by public administrations as a panacea for wealth and development. One of the consequences of this narratives was the boom of the individual creativity mythology, reinforced by iconographic ICT “geniuses” such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.
GL: Sure, but I have less of an issue with the use of computers and computer networks for individual use. To sign up for collectives and collective action is a voluntary act, something that I see as a very private, almost intimate matter. Working together is fun and works best in a very informal setting, when it really klicks between a couple of people that are passionate about what they want to achieve together. All the rest is boring work. The problem of the ‘creative’ discourse that mention here is its old-fashioned ways to make money, firmly rooted into traditional intellectual property rights regimes that no work in most sectors.
BMN: The emphasis on individual creativity often drives us to an underestimation of collective innovation. How do you interpret the tension between individual creativity and collective innovation? And what do you see as new alternative narratives that stress collaboration and cooperation?
GL: Funny enough there is already enough of an emphasis from the corporate community on collaboration and the social dimension. I don’t see the tension, to be honest. What we could say, perhaps, is that the radical left often doesn’t know how to deal with singular, sovereign individual talent. There is a (justified?) fear that the liberation of talent and creativity will lead to singular-monadic behavior: the artist as an impossible asshole. The reality is very different. Artists can no longer survive unless they continuously work on their networks. They do not develop their ideas in isolation, nor do they realize their work entirely on their own. Collaboration is often part of the work, even if it perceived as a single author work. Maybe you know that I prefer Christoph Spehr’s concept of ‘free cooperation’ over the top-down definition of collaboration as team work that is overseen by a boss. I love Spehr’s emphasis on the negative in his definition that we only truly enjoy a cooperation if we can freely leave it. I often think that we should not teach our students to become socially aware artists. What they should learn is how to break through conventions and develop their own style. Good education is not raising armies of hardcore activists, willing to sacrifice for the Cause. My ideal student is someone who has learned to question (also the political agenda of his or her master). What counts is independent thinking and poetry. Social engagement as a politically correct gesture is something that I despise. Interesting activism happens like an accident. You stumble upon injustice—and act. It is much more interesting to see cultural and political themes indirectly popping up and taking over the meaning of a work. High aesthetics at its best is political by default, not because some slogans are written all over it.
BMN: The last question is simple but the answer is probably not. What to do? With different approaches, both your views ask for Web users personal commitment to face the rise of new digital inequalities. What do you think are the best practices to organize and get involved?
GL: Let’s deal with the list of obvious answers first—and then try to overcome them. In terms of the role of social media in new political mobilizations, this is kind of obvious and a no-brainer. There are parts of the world that are highly connected, with obscene dense cultures of use where nothing will ever happen in terms of a ‘Facebook revolution’, simply because mass conformism can only express itself in individualized consumerism. The only possible riot that can happen there is during the launch of a new product. It is easy to make the obvious statement that the ‘true’ revolution will be offline and breast-to-breast in terms of communication. How romantic. This is what we all want. It is the tourist state of exception. The political reality is probably much more messy. People will use whatever tool to gossip and conspire. Instead of time and again looking for the ideal, clean and pure channel in which our revolutionary desires can team up and multiply without being monitored and filtered by the Powers to Be.
We should distinguish between a medium as discursive platform and one that is used for organization and coordination. Ideally we bring the two together as the ultimate site where discussion and mobilization are happening at the same time, a one-stop shop for all your politics and desires. If you look at the Occupy movement it becomes obvious that the internal telecommunication politics no longer is the central issue, neither is the image/representation in the so-called mainstream media for that matter. Many say that ‘Oakland’ is the limit here, and I agree. The potential of a ‘general strike’ is becoming within our reach (again), as is organizing through the model of the political party (think of the various pirate parties). Right now we’re leaving behind the Northern winter of 2011/12 and we’ll have to see what is left of the Occupy movement both in terms of a concept and a practice. Whether a small block of land was occupied proved not all that important in the end. The question is if brought people together and caused controversy. Occupy as a meme proved a powerful mobilization vehicle to bring people together in search for alternatives to neo-liberal policies in education, finance, housing etc. It might be hard over time to speak of success or failure in this context.