Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Networks and Organizations

Geert Lovink's second lecture for the UC Irvine Critical Theory Emphasis on "Tactical Media Strategies" opened by acknowledging the contributions to his thinking by his collaborator David Garcia, with whom he authored the "ABC of Tactical Media." He also introduced his somewhat provincial Orange County U.S. audience to websites like Nachtkritik and next 5 minutes and provided the historical context of the fall of Berlin wall and the rise of NGOs to help explain what tactical media was.

The central issue for Lovink, as he unpacked the subject, was managing the "shift from a social movement to a more formal way of organizing" to create a "more flexible form of political resistance" and "escape pressures to industrialize. He argued that these "new forms of organization" were well suited "to deal with long periods of time in which there were no social movements to speak of." What he called the "networked condition" of "activism and politics" could be read as "a response to a crisis of political organization" when "political parties and trade unions" had failed and "anarcho-syndicates" seemed to be unsustainable. In examining this condition, Lovink asked if it was "part of the problem or part of the solution" and seriously inquired if it was an "obstacle to revolution" or a facilitator. To emphasize the current state of theory struggling to understand this condition, he pointed out the planning for the all-star On the Idea of Communism Conference to be held in London next month with Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt, and Slavoj Žižek, which will examine "communism as metaphysical project" rather than deal with the thornier issue of "the question of organization" or the way that actual initiatives like the World Social Forum are dominated by "official global society."

He told the story of Indymedia as a cautionary tale rather than as a heroic forebear. He described it as a "product of late nineteen-nineties effort" that was "remarkably conservative in approach and outlook." (Barbara Warnick has presented a much rosier view of the Indymedia phenomenon in Rhetoric Online.) Instead, he suggested it was more useful to look at "where things can get stuck" and how this "contributed to networks" such as those created for and by the protests in Seattle in 1999. Looking at the stodgy design of the site, he asked, "How could it relate to Web 2.0?" He argued that Indymedia was "stuck on alternative news gathering" and its contributors had failed to see themselves as "social subjects and not just quasi-journalists." In other words, he asserted, they needed to get "beyond merely telling the truth." The Indymedia group also had "problems with displaying the complete social network," despite the fact that there was a lot of "technological knowledge in eighties" that could be used in "interesting, creative, and subversive ways." He cited the work of Howard Rheingold on smart mobs and the importance of engaging with "different forms of social mobilization."

Of course, he argued that awareness of such social mobilization couldn't just be restricted to "good" social mobilization. He mentioned "right wing populism in the Netherlands," groups "hunting migrants using mobile phones" in Australia, and digital jihad in countries like Lebanon and Egypt.

All of this could go beyond simple "hit-and-run" with "anonymous servers," given the availability of "cheap do-it-yourself equipment" that kept the "parameters permanently under construction" since the "camcorder revolution" and other technological shifts in access. He told audience members who might have been uninformed about the role of such networks in the former Yugoslavia about how the dissident Serbian media was sustained by the Internet broadcasting done by B92 after genocidal strongman Slobodan Milošević thought he had destroyed all their broadcasting capabilities via radio and television.

Post 9/11, Lovink said we should be keenly aware of the "impossibility of creating truly global network" and were testing "how loose can a network be" as we tried to calibrate "how we can disconnect from each other" and manage "not communicating." Lovink encouraged critics to turn their attention to how moderators function and this "edge of structure and falling apart," even if he had discovered that this philosophical orientation made him "not very popular" with the ICT and Development community, although it enabled projects like the Incommunicado as a response to the Geneva and Tunis conferences of the World Summit on the Information Society.

As a useful case study, Lovink discussed in detail the research done by Bernardo Sorj on Viva Rio, which brought telecentres to the favelas in Rio de Janiero with the idea of becoming self-sustaining by fostering literacy, contact, sociability, and culture in places like the Rocinha favela in which people actually pay for the services. Lovink also alluded to the "free" prototype of the São Paulo telecentres, which has been used as a model by advocates of open source Gnome desktop software. Lovink's informants also explained certain limiting factors, since those who used the computers tended to be from the favela's upper echelons, the influence of criminality remained, and the CDE system of franchising with a package of products could introduce other complications. Lovink encouraged an "integrated view of the progress of the slums" rather than "digital inclusion as aim in itself."

Lovink reiterated that it was "difficult if not impossible to admit that the process has failed" in many digital initiatives and turned to the One Laptop Per Child program as a prime example. Lovink conceded that the machines themselves represented a number of exemplary design goals, particularly in its energy efficiency, robustness of open source software, and rethinking of hardware architecture, but he expressed his concerns that OLPC merely perpetuates the developmentalism that has been critiqued in India and Latin America and a lack of reflection about the idea of empowerment itself. To illustrate his point he showed the website of One Laptop Per Child News where critics discussed problematic aspects of the initiative.

In concluding, Lovink asked, "Do we have a shared critical agenda? Activists, programmers, and scholars?" He suggested that new technologies like Xing make it possible for activists to create their own social network sites rather than rely on third-party commercial sites with dubious corporate agendas. After all, it may be as much about "notworking not networking" and "disruptions in flows" he argued. To illustrate his point he showed links to the participants in the Institute of Network Cultures' upcoming Winter Camp, which includes a number of activists working with open source and locative media who are entering the realm of material goods, such as Blender, Bricolabs, and the makers of the FLOSS manuals.

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