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Conversations for the future

Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford is the former editor of World Art, 21.C and Artbyte magazines and co-editor of Transit Lounge: Wake Up Calls and Traveller’s Tales from the Future.

Geert Lovink, Uncanny Networks. Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia Geert Lovink, Uncanny Networks. Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia
Geert Lovink
Uncanny Networks. Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2002
ISBN: 0262122510

Have you ever been to a party where every conversation was interesting? Didn’t think so, but as host, Geert Lovink, the founder of Nettime, might just pull it off. Lovink’s latest book, Uncanny Networks, is a rollercoaster ride of discussion that ranges from art to politics, techno tribes to dotcom IPOs, radical politics to futuristic fantasy.

What’s even more intriguing about Lovink’s compendium is its geographic range. Although several interviews were conducted via e-mail, a stunning number were face to face experiences in various corners of the globe. (I’d love to see this guy’s frequent flier account.) Lovink leaps from Sydney to Linz, Finland to Kassel, Taiwan to Amsterdam, powerfully linking the virtual to the actual with serious discussions about political and cultural scenarios in Los Angeles, Taiwan, Albania, Bulgaria, India and other parts of the world. This is almost a Lonely Planet guide for media thinkers and practitioners.

Naturally, as with any party, not every conversation will be to your taste. In fact there are a few that are rather dull, but even those have high points, if only by raising issues to disagree with. Writer Susan George describes herself as “alarmist” and proves it when she says, “For the first time in history, we do not have much time ahead of us.” In his introduction to a rather laborious discourse on cinema and politics in which Slavoj Zizek goes so far as to compare David Lynch with Leni Riefenstahl, Lovink accurately points out that Zizek “seemed to be criticising film without ever having seen one.”

Lovink rather cheekily introduces his book by conducting an interview with himself and asking the intriguing question, “Wouldn’t time be better spent writing original pieces? You are not a journalist. Shouldn’t a media theorist stick to theory?” That actually sounds like a question a journalist would ask, but it’s difficult to imagine any journalist as well-read, curious and intelligent as Geert Lovink.

Of course the answer is that interviews are by nature far more reader-friendly than the average essay. They also allow what Lovink describes as “the beauty of digital discord” to shine through. This is most obvious in the discussions with Mark Dery, Mike Davis, Paulina Borsook and McKenzie Wark. Dery, as always, delivers a blistering diatribe, suggesting that “we take a flamethrower to Newt Gingrich cum Alvin Toffler style laissez-faire futurism” and takes down Douglas Rushkoff, Arthur Kroker and John Perry Barlow while he’s at it. This is a particularly lively encounter that takes no prisoners.

Wark on a “third class”—the intellectuals and theorists who “qualify and interpret the actions of the others”—takes a fresh look at the role of academics in contemporary society (though if Wark trots out his old “we no longer have roots, we have aerials” quote once more I’ll strangle him); Davis on gated communities, and Borsook on the new economy are all riveting reads. Sadly, the Borsook discussion seems a tad dated: let’s face it, talking about Wired magazine is, well, tired—especially when the fate of dotcom boom publications like Red Herring and The Industry Standard are so much more intriguing. Borsook’s observations on the pollutants created from Silicon Valley output are sobering reading.

To a certain degree, being ‘dated’ is inevitable. Lovink began his interviews in the early 1990s, and between 1995 and 2000 posted many on Nettime. Despite their vintage, they give us a snapshot of specific periods and modes of thought, some highly prescient.

Beyond the Western style thinkers interrogated here, Lovink’s compendium is refreshing for giving equal space to other cultures. The interview with Ravi Sundaram is jam-packed with insightful information on historical and contemporary culture in India. Similarly Toshiya Ueno on Japanese subcultures, Finland’s Marita Liula on “art in the age of the mobile phone” and Kuan-Hsing Chen on contemporary media in Taiwan are full of first hand observations from cultures that tend to be sidelined in contemporary media studies. Sadly, this is the fate of many figures collected in Uncanny Networks. Lovink observes in his own interview: “I don’t think I have selected any interview partners because of their alleged subcultural, pop theory ‘celebrity’ status. I only wish they had it...The scenes these people are operating in are small, in fact way too small if you compare them to the hypergrowth of the IT sector as a whole.”

But Lovink’s selection is refreshing for this reason alone. Although there are high profile names here, Mike Davis, Arthur Kroker, Mark Dery and Gayatri Spivak, for example, Lovink has avoided the usual futurist figures; no Virilio or Baudrillard or Gibson or Sterling (although any of those would have been preferable to Kroker).

As Bruce Sterling says in his blurb, “If you want to know what media theory will say five years from now, then read Uncanny Networks to see what Geert Lovink said five years ago.” This is a dizzying ride, not always successful, but the odd clunkers make the more powerful discussions all the more delightful. If I have one major, and horrified, criticism of Uncanny Networks, it is the absence of an index—a major and silly oversight for a book so dense with references.

Uncanny Networks appears almost simultaneously with another MIT tome, Prefiguring Cyberculture. An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro (see page 7). Together these books will give any aspiring media theorist and cultural commentator almost too much food for thought—if that were possible.

Geert Lovink is a founder of Nettime and fibreculture listservs. His previous book is Dark Fiber. Tracking Critical Internet Culture (The MIT Press, 2002).

Ashley Crawford is the former editor of World Art, 21.C and Artbyte magazines and co-editor of Transit Lounge: Wake Up Calls and Traveller’s Tales from the Future.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 9

© Ashley Crawford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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