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Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture

Author: Geert Lovink
Publisher: New York: Routledge, 2008
Review Published: August 2009

 REVIEW 1: Liz Ellcessor
 REVIEW 2: Tricia M. Farwell
 REVIEW 3: Madeline Yonker

It's easy for an American techno-evangelist to get caught up in the wonder of Web 2.0: Twitter, Flickr, Blogger, and feed aggregators; web-based text, image, and video editors; etc. For Americans, it's easy to allow advances in communcation technology to carry us passively forward. It's easy to imagine that the entire web is written in English -- and that it's in service of recommending a good local sushi bar, finding an available parking spot in New York City, or publishing a serial novel.

Geert Lovink's Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture offers a potentially stunning alternative perspective of social media and technology. Lovink's collected essays on his conferences and projects concerning international new media work asks readers to consider new media in its various non-American, non-English iterations. In doing so, Lovink uncovers patterns of communication technology's history and argues for (and models) an unflinching critical approach to thinking about the globalization of the internet.

Chapter 1, "Blogging, the Nihilist Impulse," argues that blogs, the current face of internet culture, bear a specific cynicism or nihilism from the techno-social condition that resulted from the dotcom boom/bust of the late 1990s and the post 9/11 era. For Lovink, this nihilism is a kind of creative destruction whose starting point is subversion: no belief or idea is taken for granted. The result of nihilism is a great flattening of two realms: the self and culture. The flattening of the self happens when analysis is less important than opinion because we are forced to spread our selves "wide and thin" to account for the amount of information to which we now have access. The flattening of culture results from an extreme diversity that reduces common starting points to nearly zero; cultural flattening reduces any useful hierarchy of information. Critical internet culture, then, should examine the tension between the self and culture.

Chapter 2, "The Cool Obscure: Crisis of New Media Arts," presents the plight of new media art within the rapid growth of social media and commercial contexts. New media art as a discipline is problematic: who are new media artists? Developers? Designers? In addition, the general intention behind new media art, to explore the boundaries of technology and art, creates a complex situation for critics, consumers, and artists. The experimental nature of new media art means the best (or only) audiences for such work are the artists themselves; therefore, curation (as in galleries or museums for the public) is impossible. The lack of audience coupled with lack of method for artists to connect with (and create) an audience makes new media art exist in a kind of echo chamber. Lovink acknowledges that academia may succeed in legitimizing new media art, but that the key to success will be in the way new media art might draw from other disciplines like architecture, film, or visual arts to cultivate a "material awareness" (81). Similiarly, Chapter 3, "Whereabouts of German Media Theory," describes several academic movements out of Germany that should find international purchase in new media studies, but that face institutional and material obstacles to wider acceptance. Those obstacles include export/translation politics and the boundaries of disciplinarity. German theorists are faced with a shrinking market for non-English scholarship (here, Lovink cites his own decision to write in English) as well as the problem that all media theorists face of defining and operating within a disciplinary framework that borrows from a range of fields (as well as being accepted by those various disciplines as legitimate). Chapter 4, "Blogging and Building," takes on the problem of disciplinarity in architecture as computers invite the amateur designer to take up the tools of architecture. Lovink's concern lies with architecture's relative "rudimentary understanding" (110) of the changes that the internet and computers make to human living spaces. Architecture as a discipline can help design spaces that let technology serve us, not enslave us (117), but only if the discipline allows its boundaries to be permeated by other disciplines, like media theory.

Chapter 5, "Indifference of the Networked Presence: On Internet Time," discusses users' experience of time in networked spaces. While Lovink begins the discussion with Paul Virilio's characterization of internet time as disembodied and alienating, he ultimately argues that the lost time is best addressed in our approach to understanding and valuing the work we do in such spaces. Lovink addresses three activities and three levels of media interaction that require different kinds of time: 1) time required to learn how to use [the new computer, a new operating system, a new program or application], 2) time required to complete specific tasks [checking email, reading/writing blog posts, syncing the iPod], and 3) the time used in interacting, in "pure communication" (123). Once users reach the third level, which might be called "digital literacy" by some definitions, they are able to negotiate and optimize their own experience of time in online spaces.

Chapters 6 and 7 accounts Lovink's personal experience with the treatment of technology in non-Western and developing countries. "Revisiting Sarai" catalogues the projects of Sarai, a new media center in Dehli, India, concerned with studying the connection between "urban culture, media, and daily life" (134). Projects include: the Hindi Media Reader, a series that considers Hindi culture in the context of new media; Cybermohalla, which works to foster digital literacy by giving locals the means to create digital stories of their own everyday lives; and the Alternative Law Forum (ALF), which partners with Sarai to study the impact of technology on Dehli. Institutionally, however, Sarai has encountered problems with organization and sustainability, though such problems are a function of its diverse research agenda and constantly changing population of researchers. In "ICT after Development," Lovink narrates and reflects on his experience with Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D). Often, problems with the introduction of technology into developing/recently developed countries stem from the Western perspective of how technology is used, which is not always the best or necessary system for thinking about ICT in non-Western countries (for instance, the One Laptop Per Child program assumes that laptops cannot be shared). He outlines two critiques to the introduction of ICT in developed countries: the first, the "holistic" approach, assumes that technology tends to "increase pollution, stress, working hours ... and exploitation in general" (168); the second approach is concerned with the impact ICT4D can have when we focus on material access only. If ICT offers "open access," this raises the question "why not open borders?" The political and social ramifications of ICT4D extend far beyond the bounds of the initial intentions of those who advocate for its adoption/introduction.

Chapter 8 and 9 are concerned with the activism and online spaces. "Updating Tactical Media" argues that globalism activists must shift their perpsective of media: "It is time to understand that media is more than representation or spectacle" (199). Media creates the network that connects societies, and so to simply use media to protest or shape global movements is to ignore the ways such movements themselves are a function of globalization. The obstacle activists face is the reconciliation of the feet-meet-street variety of organizing with the nebulous often untenable fluidity that social media fosters: "many activists easily get lost in the overload of e-mail messages, Weblogs, and chat exchanges ... having to swim against a tsunami of noise and random tension" (204). Lovink argues that social media can cultivate material action, but activists must reexamine their approach to using media. Old paradigms of rigid dichotomies (public/private, global/local [204]) disappear in the network, and activists must reposition themselves accordingly to remain effective. "Axioms of Free Cooperation" describes the ways collaboration and cooperation affect art, activism, and labor. Free cooperation means that there's power in the collective, but power among individuals to negotiate their participation. Lovink cites Christoph Spehr, who argues that power lies in the refusal to cooperate, and Tobias van Veen, who argues that effective collaboration results when leaders emerge. Lovink concludes, however, that collaboration requires "a basic consensus on what is on the agenda" regardless of politics (216), and that in many cases with new media, collaboration is necessary because no one person possesses all the technical skills for production (218). A theory of collaboration can help new media users effectively cooperate in online space, but the creation of such a theory can only be ongoing -- the complex workings of human interaction prevent a full understanding. So, to best harness the power of collaboration, Lovink argues, we simply must "prepare for collaboration. That is all we can do" (223).

Chapter 10, "Theses on Distributed Aesthetics," attempts to answer the question "What is 'sensual recognition' in the age of networks and what critical terms need to develop in order to describe properly our mediated experiences?" (226). As the terms of our existence shift us into "fragmented techno-social networks," we must locate ourselves within competing spheres: our individual, real-time, local interaction with media and our scattered, crowd-sourced, asynchronous interaction with others through that media. While maps allows us to visualize (and harness) the network, they provide a singular perception of connections that exist in a particular moment; therefore, visualizing associations -- our links -- can be misleading or incomplete. Instead, the ongoing project (of defining, of creating) a distributed aesthetics is one that we engage everytime we choose to make or deny a friend request on Facebook.

Lovink closes the book with a chapter on organized digital media networks, claiming that their latent power has not yet been tapped. Thus far, networks have not introduced any particular economic growth. The existing metaphors for networks, "mobs and swarms" (241), offer little connotation in the way of evolutionary progress. Further, organized networks should replace the often used term "virutal community" (241) -- an organized network relies on disagreement and dubiousness, whereas community relies on harmony and complacence. Lovink's point is that harmony and complacence are not generative nor productive; organized networks will sustain through agonism and difference. His understanding of the potential for digital networks to revolutionize human culture is far-reaching; his ethos resides in the sheer number of conferences and projects dealing with new media he's developed and attended. Lovink's ultimate conclusion and his refrain throughout the chapters is that critical, interdisciplinary attention is crucial in the project of discovering and benefiting from the potential good of new media. Actually, this sentence might also read: "Nihilism results in the flattening of the self and of culture," as I am unsure of Lovink's intended relationship between the two.

Madeline Yonker:
Madeline Yonker is an Assistant Professor of Composition and Rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania. She writes about technorhetoric and participatory culture. She blogs at thegoodgravy.wordpress.com.  <mryonker@gmail.com>

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