My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition
Author: Geert Lovink
Publisher: Rotterdam: V2/NAi Publishers, 2003
Review Published: December 2006
The first question to be asked before reading Geert Lovink's My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition is this: Is a book written to make sense of the dotcom crash of 2001, and what it means for the future of the internet, still worth reading today? The answer must be a qualified yes, as the book is historically informative, but also poses questions that are still valuable to ask today. Reading this book can prompt the reader to undertake his/her own reflection and will be a valuable experience. Lovink, a well-known internet critic who knows the social practices of the internet inside out, is well placed to stimulate such reflection.
The potential reader should not be misled by the title -- this is not another business book about the internet. Rather, it focuses on the social and political practices that are enabled within and without the internet, the implications thereof, and how these are intertwined with failed business models.
The book isn't a neutral take on the topic, as the author is actively engaged in the emancipatory movement, constantly self-reflective about how the internet can advance, or not, such emancipatory goals. The book is neither aimed at a hypothetical general reader, nor confined to academia, but should appeal to anyone interested in how the actual practices of internet-enabled communities intersect with the often stated ideals and utopian longings. The role of the net critic is to be constantly on the look out for mythologizing. The author is neither an idealist, nor a cynic, and weary of both stances. Lovink is not a technological determinist, and recognizes that user communities actively shape the technology themselves. He places himself well within the "third phase of internet studies," the phase that refuses to divorce the internet from the physical plane, that no longer reasons about cyberspace as a separate realm, but stresses its embeddedness of the medium and embodiedness of the user: both cyberspace and meatspace are one integrated reality.
In the introduction, Lovink strongly rejects the concept of the outside public intellectual, which purports to act as a gatekeeper. The critic must him/herself be a user, have a thorough understanding stemming from real practice. Lovink specifically singles out thinkers like Virilio, Zizek, and others for being on the outside of the fence, thereby undermining the credibility of their own critiques. Lovink asks them not to confuse the internet for a cybersex installation.
In general, the book is an analysis of the practices of what Lovink calls critical internet culture, "an emerging milieu of non-profit initiatives, cultural organizations and individuals" (28), and its practices of communication.
The first chapter takes the form of an extended book review of three "post-crash" titles: Manuel Castells' Internet Galaxy, Lawrence Lessig's The Future of an Idea, and Hubert Dreyfus' On the Internet. What Lovink rejects in Chapter 1 is the conservative-moralistic stance of Dreyfus (which aims to "stop technology" and mistakes the transhumanist Extropian ideology for the reality of the internet), the "neutral-pragmatic" stance of Castells (who, according to Lovink, fails to see the conflict and tensions inherent in the nework society), and the liberal stance of Lessig (who wants to save capitalism from its own excesses).
Chapter 2 is an overview of business-oriented "dotcom mania" literature, i.e. first-hand account by some of the actors, all of whom Lovink castigates for naivety regarding the realities of capitalism. After critiquing the purported the cyber-enthusiastic writings of John Perry Barlow, Kevin Kelly, and George Gilder, Lovink reviews the retrospective memoires of internet entrepreneurs such as Michael Wolff's Burn Rate (on the NYC new media scene of the late 90s), David Kuo's Dot.Bomb (about the retail portal Value America), and a few other more general accounts of the era.
For this reviewer, the book starts to be interesting from the third chapter onwards, when real internet experiences are analyzed, with the author as a "participant observer." It deals with the rise and fall of the Syndicate mailing list, which was a post-1989 project that aimed to create a network and forum for new media arts practitioners in both East and West, and in particular it details the failure of the mailing list to overcome divisions related to the intervention in Kosovo. It is a chapter that goes into the nuts and bolts of what it means to manage a mailing lists, and to face disrupters such as "trolls" (frequent posters that intentionally seek to destroy online communities).
Chapter 4 deals with Xchange, a non-profit streaming media initiative. This is the story of a project that basically went nowhere, and Lovink makes much of the stagnation, but to his credit, it was written before the recent YouTube and videosharing boom. The saving grace of the chapter is its discussion of new media concepts such as "sovereign media" and "intimate media."
The fifth chapter deals with new media arts education. It is an investigation of how the "new media" educational experiments deal with the hostility of the established Fine Arts practitioners.
Chapter 6 looks at the free software and open source communities through a case study of the Oekonux mailing list, a group of people striving for the establishment of a "GPL Society," i.e. a society that would largely function according to the principles established by the movements in favor of open/free social practices. It believes free software to be the "germ form" for a new social structure. Lovink, originally a participant, became rather hostile to this experiment in theory building, and basically thinks of it as stagnant. Nevertheless, this chapter is a record of the rich set of debates which took place when geek culture went mainstream.
Chapters 3 to 6 can be read as a kind of "secret history of the net," making visible the invisible communities which had a crucial impact, yet are virtually ignored by the mass media - not to mention the majority of academics. This is one of the most invaluable aspects of the book.
The last chapter deals with Open Publishing and describes the transition from a medium dominated by "list culture," to one dominated by blogging. It also describes a number of more recent personal projects, such as the Australian FibreCulture Journal. List culture is discussed through the issue of moderation vs. the totally free exchange of speech, including the problem of trolls -- negative-attention seeking participants bend on the destruction of the common culture. Lovink concludes that there are no 100% free projects, and that the survival and sustainability of communities require certain coercive measures. The new blogging culture is discussed through the prism of the A-list phenomenon. Discussing sustainability of online collaborative projects, he notes that all the successful ones have a core of paid employees.
The book ends with an extensive conclusion that deals with the governance and sustainability of critical internet culture in the face of the massification of the medium. It is the book's programmatic conclusion on what needs to be done.
Regarding the publishing of free content, Lovink believes it is a financial disaster for those who contribute, and that it leads to a voluntocracy, where those with the most time on their hands, and with nothing to lose, gain the upper hand. He decries the lack of internal democracy in many of these "old boys networks." He also concludes that there is a demise of independent infrastructure. Nobody seems to want to discuss the ownership of the projects. Those who own the servers can always pull the plug. However, I am less impressed with the proposed solutions, which involve a yearning for the (often failed) micropayment solution and the introduction of a user-pay system. In my opinion, Lovink does not quite get the logic of the free peer production of information and its inherently non-reciprocal intent of building an information commons. He fails to see that while the current projects are not sustainable from an individual point of view (such a producer must regularly return to the market for income), there are a myriad of projects that are already collectively sustainable. The concluding chapter does not have any social reform proposals that could lead to more structural solutions.
Each of the chapters are informative and critical. The author has an uncanny ability to make the trends, war stories, and case studies come alive, and for those of us who were active in such environments from that period, it all has the ring of truth. Lovink is pretty much in tune with the agonist theories of Chantal Mouffe, who criticizes liberal-democratic consensus theories; his worldview is based on unearthing conflict. He is sometimes very harsh, and I am not sure that Kevin Kelly and John Perry Barlow were as naïve as Lovink portrays them to be. One should not confuse a long-term vision and optimism of the will, with an adherence to short term hype. That said, Geert Lovink is not the kind of writer who creates straw men and caricatures of his enemies. For having read most of the authors that are discussed in his book, the summaries are written in fairness, and the critiques are well-argued counter-points. Lovink's methodology is different in every chapter, and well adapted to the subject matter; his approaches range from classical book reviews, to content analysis, to personalized interviews with protagonists.
One significant critique I have of the book is the tendency of the author to take the mentality of his own environment as the main measure to gauge reality. I sometimes had the feeling that the comments and criticism are too conjuncture-driven. For example, we read that posthumanism has disappeared. However, if anything, they even have more influence today, though the Extropians no longer dominate the scene. We read that cyber-utopianism was decisively beaten by the dotcom crash. However, it has taken on an new life with the Web 2.0 enthusiasm. We read about the continued failure of streaming initiatives. However, it is thriving as we speak. It is, of course, easy to fault an author who was writing in 2003, but, in my opinion, we do not get enough of a sense of the long term trends that may persist, even in the face of short-term setbacks. I also take issue with what I think is a very traditional view of innovation, which Lovink sees happening first in the military, then in universities, then in large corporations, and occasionally, a start-up. In my opinion, he fails to understand a decisive shift to social innovation, where it is indeed the user-communities which are driving innovation.
Overall, then, Geert Lovink's My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Transition is a book which I enjoyed reading and found to be informative. It is a witness to its times while at the same time it stimulates constant self-reflection, even though the reader will of course at times disagree with particular criticisms.
Michel Bauwens is a former three-time internet entrepreneur and the founder of the Foundation for P2P Alternatives, which seeks to document, research, and promote peer to peer–based social processes. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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