From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes, Lovink/Schneider

Posted by ryan griffis | Thu Jan 9th 2003 1 a.m.
A Virtual World is Possible:
From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes
By Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider


We start with the current strategy debates of the
so-called "anti-globalisation movement", the biggest
emerging political force for decades. In Part II we
will look into strategies of critical new media
culture in the post-speculative phase after
dotcommania. Four phases of the global movement are
becoming visible, all of which have distinct
political, artistic and aesthetic qualities.

1. The 90s and tactical media activism

The term 'tactical media' arose in the aftermath of
the fall of the Berlin Wall as a renaissance of media
activism, blending old school political work and
artists' engagement with new technologies. The early
nineties saw a growing awareness of gender issues,
exponential growth of media industries and the
increasing availability of cheap do-it-yourself
equipment creating a new sense of self-awareness
amongst activists, programmers, theorists, curators
and artists. Media were no longer seen as merely tools
for the Struggle, but experienced as virtual
environments whose parameters were permanently 'under
construction'. This was the golden age of tactical
media, open to issues of aesthetics and
experimentation with alternative forms of story
telling. However, these liberating techno practices
did not immediately translate into visible social
movements. Rather, they symbolized the celebration of
media freedom, in itself a great political goal. The
media used - from video, CD-ROM, cassettes, zines and
flyers to music styles such as rap and techno - varied
widely, as did the content. A commonly shared feeling
was that politically motivated activities, be they art
or research or advocacy work, were no longer part of a
politically correct ghetto and could intervene in 'pop
culture' without necessarily having to compromise with
the 'system.' With everything up for negotiation, new
coalitions could be formed. The current movements
worldwide cannot be understood outside of the diverse
and often very personal for digital freedom of

2. 99-01: The period of big mobilizations

By the end of the nineties the post-modern 'time
without movements' had come to pass. The organized
discontent against neo-liberalism, global warming
policies, labour exploitation and numerous other
issues converged. Equipped with networks and
arguments, backed up by decades of research, a hybrid
movement - wrongly labelled by mainstream media as
'anti-globalisation' - gained momentum. One of the
particular features of this movement lies in its
apparent inability and unwillingness to answer the
question that is typical of any kind of movement on
the rise or any generation on the move: what's to be
done? There was and there is no answer, no alternative
- either strategic or tactical - to the existing world
order, to the dominant mode of globalisation.

And maybe this is the most important and liberating
conclusion: there is no way back to the twentieth
century, the protective nation state and the gruesome
tragedies of the 'left.' It has been good to remember
- but equally good to throw off - the past. The
question 'what's to be done' should not be read as an
attempt to re-introduce some form of Leninist
principles. The issues of strategy, organization and
democracy belong to all times. We neither want to
bring back old policies through the backdoor, nor do
we think that this urgent question can be dismissed by
invoking crimes committed under the banner of Lenin,
however justified such arguments are. When Slavoj
Zizek looks in the mirror he may see Father Lenin, but
that's not the case for everyone. It is possible to
wake up from the nightmare of the past history of
communism and (still) pose the question: what's to be
done? Can a 'multitude' of interests and backgrounds
ask that question, or is the only agenda that defined
by the summit calendar of world leaders and the
business elite?

Nevertheless, the movement has been growing rapidly.
At first sight it appears to use a pretty boring and
very traditional medium: the mass-mobilization of tens
of thousands in the streets of Seattle, hundreds of
thousands in the streets of Genoa. And yet, tactical
media networks played an important role in it's coming
into being. From now on pluriformity of issues and
identities was a given reality. Difference is here to
stay and no longer needs to legitimize itself against
higher authorities such as the Party, the Union or the
Media. Compared to previous decades this is its
biggest gain. The 'multitudes' are not a dream or some
theoretical construct but a reality.

If there is a strategy, it is not contradiction but
complementary existence. Despite theoretical
deliberations, there is no contradiction between the
street and cyberspace. The one fuels the other.
Protests against the WTO, neo-liberal EU policies, and
party conventions are all staged in front of the
gathered world press. Indymedia crops up as a parasite
of the mainstream media. Instead of having to beg for
attention, protests take place under the eyes of the
world media during summits of politicians and business
leaders, seeking direct confrontation. Alternatively,
symbolic sites are chosen such as border regions
(East-West Europe, USA-Mexico) or refugee detention
centres (Frankfurt airport, the centralized Eurocop
database in Strasbourg, the Woomera detention centre
in the Australian desert). Rather than just objecting
to it, the global entitlement of the movement adds to
the ruling mode of globalisation a new layer of
globalisation from below.

3. Confusion and resignation after 9-11

At first glance, the future of the movement is a
confusing and irritating one. Old-leftist grand
vistas, explaining US imperialism and its aggressive
unilateralist foreign policy, provided by Chomsky,
Pilger and other baby boomers are consumed with
interest but no longer give the bigger picture. In a
polycentric world conspiracy theories can only provide
temporary comfort for the confused. No moralist
condemnation of capitalism is necessary as facts and
events speak for themselves. People are driven to the
street by the situation, not by an analysis (neither
ours nor the one from Hardt & Negri). The few
remaining leftists can no longer provide the movement
with an ideology, as it works perfectly without one.
"We don't need your revolution." Even the social
movements of the 70s and 80s, locked up in their NGO
structures, have a hard time keeping up. New social
formations are taking possession of the streets and
media spaces, without feeling the need of
representation by some higher authority, not even the
heterogenous committees gathering in Porto Alegre.

So far this movement has been bound in clearly defined
time/space coordinates. It still takes months to
mobilize multitudes and organize the logistics, from
buses and planes, camping grounds and hostels, to
independent media centres. This movement is anything
but spontaneous (and does not even claim to be so).
The people that travel hundreds or thousands of miles
to attend protest rallies are driven by real concerns,
not by some romantic notion of socialism. The worn-out
question: "reform or revolution?" sounds more like
blackmail to provoke the politically correct answer.

The contradiction between selfishness and altruism is
also a false one. State-sponsored corporate
globalisation affects everyone. International bodies
such as the WTO, the Kyoto Agreement on global
warming, or the privatisation of the energy sector are
no longer abstract news items, dealt with by
bureaucrats and (NGO) lobbyists. This political
insight has been the major quantum leap of recent
times. Is this then the Last International? No. There
is no way back to the nation state, to traditional
concepts of liberation, the logic of transgression and
transcendence, exclusion and inclusion. Struggles are
no longer projected onto a distant Other that begs for
our moral support and money. We have finally arrived
in the post-solidarity age. As a consequence, national
liberation movements have been replaced by a by a new
analysis of power, which is simultaneously incredibly
abstract, symbolic and virtual, whilst terribly
concrete, detailed and intimate.

4. Present challenge: liquidate the regressive third
period of marginal moral protest

Luckily September 11 has had no immediate impact on
the movement. The choice between Bush and Bin Laden
was irrelevant. Both agendas were rejected as
devastating fundamentalisms. The all too obvious
question: "whose terror is worse?" was carefully
avoided as it leads away from the pressing emergencies
of everyday life: the struggle for a living wage,
decent public transport, health care, water, etc. As
both social democracy and really existing socialism
depended heavily on the nation state a return to the
20thcentury sounds as disastrous as all the
catastrophes it produced. The concept of a digital
multitude is fundamentally different and based
entirely on openness. Over the last few years the
creative struggles of the multitudes have produced
outputs on many different layers: the dialectics of
open sources, open borders, open knowledge. Yet the
deep penetration of the concepts of openness and
freedom into the principle of struggle is by no means
a compromise to the cynical and greedy neo-liberal
class. Progressive movements have always dealt with a
radical democratisation of the rules of access,
decision-making and the sharing of gained capacities.
Usually it started from an illegal or illegitimate
common ground. Within the bounds of the analogue world
it led to all sorts of cooperatives and self-organized
enterprises, whose specific notions of justice were
based on efforts to circumvent the brutal regime of
the market and on different ways of dealing with the
scarcity of material resources.

We're not simply seeking proper equality on a digital
level. We're in the midst of a process that
constitutes the totality of a revolutionary being, as
global as it is digital. We have to develop ways of
reading the raw data of the movements and struggles
and ways to make their experimental knowledge legible;
to encode and decode the algorithms of its
singularity, nonconformity and non-confoundability; to
invent, refresh and update the narratives and images
of a truly global connectivity; to open the source
code of all the circulating knowledge and install a
virtual world.

Bringing these efforts down to the level of production
challenges new forms of subjectivity, which almost
necessarily leads to the conclusion that everyone is
an expert. The superflux of human resources and the
brilliance of everyday experience get dramatically
lost in the 'academification' of radical left theory.
Rather the new ethical-aesthetic paradigm lives on in
the pragmatic consciousness of affective labour, in
the nerdish attitude of a digital working class, in
the omnipresence of migrant struggles as well as many
other border-crossing experiences, in deep notions of
friendship within networked environments as well as
the 'real' world.


Let's now look at strategies for Internet art &
activism. Critical new media culture faces a tough
climate of budget cuts in the cultural sector and a
growing hostility and indifference towards new media.
But hasn't power shifted to cyberspace, as Critical
Art Ensemble once claimed? Not so if we look at the
countless street marches around the world.

The Seattle movement against corporate globalisation
appears to have gained momentum - both on the street
and online. But can we really speak of a synergy
between street protests and online 'hacktivism'? No.
But what they have in common is their (temporal)
conceptual stage. Both real and virtual protests risk
getting stuck at the level of a global 'demo design,'
no longer grounded in actual topics and local
situations. This means the movement never gets out of
beta. At first glance, reconciling the virtual and the
real seems to be an attractive rhetorical act. Radical
pragmatists have often emphasized the embodiment of
online networks in real-life society, dispensing with
the real/virtual contradiction. Net activism, like the
Internet itself, is always hybrid, a blend of old and
new, haunted by geography, gender, race and other
political factors. There is no pure disembodied zone
of global communication, as the 90s cyber-mythology

Equations such as street plus cyberspace, art meets
science, and 'techno-culture'are all interesting
interdisciplinary approaches but are proving to have
little effect beyond the symbolic level of dialogue
and discourse. The fact is that established
disciplines are in a defensive mode. The 'new'
movements and media are not yet mature enough to
question and challenge the powers that be. In a
conservative climate, the claim to 'embody the future'
becomes a weak and empty gesture.

On the other hand, the call of many artists and
activists to return to "real life" does not provide us
with a solution to how alternative new media models
can be raised to the level of mass (pop) culture. Yes,
street demonstrations raise solidarity levels and lift
us up from the daily solitude of one-way media
interfaces. Despite September 11 and its right-wing
political fallout, social movements worldwide are
gaining importance and visibility. We should, however,
ask the question "what comes after the demo version"
of both new media and the movements?

This isn't the heady 60s. The negative, pure and
modernist level of the "conceptual" has hit the hard
wall of demo design as Peter Lunenfeld described it in
his book 'Snap to Grid'. The question becomes: how to
jump beyond the prototype? What comes after the siege
of yet another summit of CEOs and their politicians?
How long can a movement grow and stay 'virtual'? Or in
IT terms, what comes after demo design, after the
countless PowerPoint presentations, broadband trials
and Flash animations? Will Linux ever break out of the
geek ghetto? The feel-good factor of the open, ever
growing crowd (Elias Canetti) will wear out; demo
fatigue will set in. We could ask: does your Utopia
version have a use-by date?

Rather than making up yet another concept it is time
to ask the question of how software, interfaces and
alternative standards can be installed in society.
Ideas may take the shape of a virus, but society can
hit back with even more successful immunization
programs: appropriation, repression and neglect. We
face a scalability crisis. Most movements and
initiatives find themselves in a trap. The strategy of
becoming "minor" (Guattari) is no longer a positive
choice but the default option. Designing a successful
cultural virus and getting millions of hits on your
weblog will not bring you beyond the level of a
short-lived 'spectacle'. Culture jammers are no longer
outlaws but should be seen as experts in guerrilla

Today's movements are in danger of getting stuck in
self-satisfying protest mode. With access to the
political process effectively blocked, further
mediation seems the only available option. However,
gaining more and more "brand value" in terms of global
awareness may turn out to be like overvalued stocks:
it might pay off, it might turn out to be worthless.
The pride of "We have always told you so" is boosting
the moral of minority multitudes, but at the same time
it delegates legitimate fights to the level of
official "Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" (often
parliamentary or Congressional), after the damage is

Instead of arguing for "reconciliation" between the
real and virtual we call here for a rigorous synthesis
of social movements with technology. Instead of taking
the "the future is now" position derived from
cyber-punk, a lot could be gained from a radical
re-assessment of the techno revolutions of the last
10-15 years. For instance, if artists and activists
can learn anything from the rise and subsequent fall
of dot-com, it might be the importance of marketing.
The eyeballs of the dotcom attention economy proved

This is a terrain is of truly taboo knowledge.
Dot-coms invested their entire venture capital in (old
media) advertisement. Their belief that
media-generated attention would automatically draw
users in and turn them into customers was unfounded.
The same could be said of activist sites. Information
"forms" us. But new consciousness results less and
less in measurable action. Activists are only starting
to understand the impact of this paradigm. What if
information merely circles around in its own parallel
world? What's to be done if the street demonstration
becomes part of the Spectacle?

The increasing tensions and polarizations described
here force us to question the limits of new media
discourse. In the age of realtime global events Ezra
Pound's definition of art as the antenna of the human
race shows its passive, responsive nature. Art no
longer initiates. One can be happy if it responds to
contemporary conflicts at all and the new media arts
sector is no exception. New media arts must be
reconciled with its condition as a special effect of
the hard and software developed years ago.

Critical new media practices have been slow to respond
to both the rise and fall of dotcommania. In the
speculative heydays of new media culture (the
early-mid 90s, before the rise of the World Wide Web),
theorists and artists jumped eagerly on not yet
existing and inaccessible technologies such as virtual
reality. Cyberspace generated a rich collection of
mythologies; issues of embodiment and identity were
fiercely debated. Only five years later, while
Internet stocks were going through the roof, little
was left of the initial excitement in intellectual and
artistic circles. Experimental techno culture missed
out on the funny money. Recently there has been a
steady stagnation of new media cultures, both in terms
of concepts and funding. With millions of new users
flocking onto the Net, the arts can no longer keep up
and withdraw into their own little world of festivals,
mailing lists and workshops.

Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for
goodwill, still portray artists as working at the
forefront of technological developments, the reality
is a different one. Multi-disciplinary goodwill is at
an all time low. At best, the artist's new media
products are 'demo design' as described by Lunenfeld.
Often it does not even reach that level. New media
arts, as defined by its few institutions rarely reach
audiences outside of its own electronic arts
subculture. The heroic fight for the establishment of
a self-referential 'new media arts system' through a
frantic differentiation of works, concepts and
traditions, might be called a dead-end street. The
acceptance of new media by leading museums and
collectors will simply not happen. Why wait a few
decades anyway? Why exhibit net art in white cubes?
The majority of the new media organizations such as
ZKM, the Ars Electronica Centre, ISEA, ICC or ACMI are
hopeless in their techno innocence, being neither
critical nor radically utopian in their approach.
Hence, the new media arts sector, despite its steady
growth, is getting increasingly isolated, incapable of
addressing the issues of today's globalised world,
dominated by (the war against) terror. Let's face it,
technology is no longer 'new,' the markets are down
and out and no one wants know about it anymore. Its
little wonder the contemporary (visual) arts world is
continuing its decade-old boycott of (interactive) new
media works in galleries, biennales and shows like
Documenta XI.

A critical reassessment of the role of arts and
culture within today's network society seems
necessary. Let's go beyond the 'tactical' intentions
of the players involved. The artist-engineer,
tinkering on alternative human-machine interfaces,
social software or digital aesthetics has effectively
been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Science and
business have successfully ignored the creative
community. Worse still, artists have been actively
sidelined in the name of 'usability', pushed by a
backlash movement against web design led by the
IT-guru Jakob Nielsen. The revolt against usability is
about to happen. Lawrence Lessig argues that Internet
innovation is in danger. The younger generation is
turning its back onon new media arts questions and if
involved at all, operate as anti-corporate activists.
After the dotcom crash the Internet has rapidly lost
its imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell
phones can only temporarily fill up the vacuum; the
once so glamorous gadgets are becoming part of
everyday life. This long-term tendency, now
accelerating, seriously undermines future claims of
new media.

Another issue concerns generations. With video and
expensive interactive installations being the domain
of the '68 baby boomers, the generation of '89 has
embraced the free Internet. But the Net turned out to
be a trap for them. Whereas assets, positions and
power remain in the hands of the ageing baby boomers,
the gamble on the rise of new media did not pay off.
After venture capital has melted away, there is still
no sustainable revenue system in place for the
Internet. The slow working educational bureaucracies
have not yet grasped the new media malaise.
Universities are still in the process of establishing
new media departments. But that will come to a halt at
some point. The fifty-something tenured chairs and
vice-chancellors must feel good about their persistent
sabotage. What's so new about new media anyway?
Technology was hype after all, promoted by the
criminals of Enron and WorldCom. It is sufficient for
students to do a bit of email and web surfing,
safeguarded within a filtered, controlled intranet. In
the face of this rising techno-cynicism we urgently
need to analyse the ideology of the greedy 90s and its
techno-libertarianism. If we don't disassociate new
media quickly from the previous decade, the isolation
of the new media sector will sooner or later result in
its death. Let's transform the new media buzz into
something more interesting altogether - before others
do it for us.

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