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Trebor Scholz, "The Truth About Networks"

The Truth About Networks

Trebor Scholz

Between the total hell of networked, salaried labor and the promises of the
commons

In short succession the first two in a series of publications called "DATA
browser" were just released. Both start out with historical texts to search
for effective contemporary models of cultural production that merge
socio-technological with artistic critique.

"DATA browser 01" takes Theodor
Adorno's and Max Horkheimer's notion of the culture industry (1944) as a
departing point. "DATA browser 02" links to Walter Benjamin's essay "The
Author as Producer" (1934).

Let's start with Brian Holmes' essay "The
Flexible Personality," which contributes a rare meditation on today's
network society and sketches out an intellectual history of anti-systemic
movements that becomes the critical backdrop for both volumes of "DATA
browser." Here, the Paris-based art critic, activist, and translator Holmes
leads us into a social landscape of total network hell. Together with the
social theorist Maurizio Lazzarato, Holmes is not on board when it comes to
the techno-utopian celebration of the networked life style. Lazzarato thinks
that new networked techniques are even more totalitarian than the assembly
line. Brian Holmes includes a reference to Adorno's notion of the
authoritarian personality (1950), which is defined by its rigid
conventionalism, submission to authority, opposition to everything
subjective, stereotypy, an emphasis on power and toughness, destructiveness
and cynicism, and an exaggerated concern with sexual scandal. Holmes'
criticism of networked labor is sharp — he argues that distributed,
casualized labor is based on the ruthless pleasure of exploitation and soft
coercion that the laptop as portable instrument of control affords. The
Italian philosopher Paolo Virno places questions about idleness, leisure and
the refusal to work at the center of the discussion about contemporary
production. Brian Holmes points to the "de-localized" production of the "networker" or
"connectivist" that helps today's firms to eradicate social programs. In
"flexible capitalism" networked, salaried labor can be easily monitored and
leads to ever more surplus that can be extracted from the laborer to the
rhythm of the mouse click. Holmes uses the term "prosumer" for a consumer
who becomes an amateur producer within the networked enterprise. According
to Holmes the networker as satisfied individualist and hyperactive single is
always ready to jump and take advantage of every opportunity and is left
unmoved by all the data mining and acceleration of consumption.

In his essay
"The Producer as Power User" Pit Schultz, who describes himself as "social
media architect" also talks about the marketing term of the prosumer and
introduces the "power user" (neither amateur nor professional). Dependent on
the participation in the global communication apparatus everyone is a power
user. According to Schultz, the workplace becomes a state of mind for the
power user aiming for total productivity. The power user comes in different
degrees of machine addiction and is an advanced user with administration and
customization skills. Her unpaid labor mainly pays off through the social
reputation economy created from social capital gained from contributions to
the gift economy of the public domain. The power user follows the "I post
therefore I am" so that more links go to and from her name and URL. And when
she publishes in books and journals, she references her ephemeral online
materials. The power user produces ever more redundant work that inevitably
leads to radical mediocrity and "panic publishing." Power users love free
content and are passionate about the growing open archives.


Other "DATA browser" essays add a variety of examples that shed light on the
hopeful potentials of network culture and open environments. The texts in
these two volumes respond to the civic disengagement and decline of social
connectedness and look for ways to re-connect us with the anti-systemic
oppositional culture of the sixties. How can new forms of solidarity emerge
and help us to create a better society based on the desire for equality? How
can collective projects, and communicative activism serve to foster
distributed creativity, peer relations, openness and collaboration? Which
case studies can be presented that dismount criticism of blind idealism when
it comes to the commons?

Today's culture-activists from Delhi and Pittsburgh
to London operate through technology and networks that have the ability to
reconfigure power relations through the creation of knowledge pools, free
wireless networks, and sharing of information in open archives.

Browsing
through the texts in Db 01/02 theoretical threads lead from Paolo Virno's A
Grammar of the Multitude
and Manuel Castells' Rise of the Network
Society
to Michael Hardt, Richard Barbrook, Cornelius Castoriadis, Tiziana
Terranova, and Naomi Klein.

It is clear from these examples that theory here
is not groomed in the academic observatory but conceived of as tool that is
linked to practice. In fact, reading these texts I felt like going through a
transcript of a round table discussion in the sense that the authors have
much common theoretical ground.


In these two volumes theory, art and political action inform each other
rather than being conflated with one another. While Holmes and Schultz
demonstrate new typologies of the networked laborer, the Delhi-based group
of media practioners "Raqs Media Collective" points to an alternative
reality. In their essay "X Notes on Practice" the group points to
Argentinean workers, who faced with a failed money economy, developed their
own exchange system based on self-regulation and free interchange outside of
the circuit desired by capital.


Within the cooperation commons people create and distribute content. This
overwhelms traditional companies that cannot match the massive amount of
free content created by a multitude of user communities. These cultural
reservoirs and much of cooperation-enhancing technologies allow the
like-minded to connect and share knowledge. This has the potential to
undermine the content hegemonies of universities, museums, companies, and
the military.


Knowledge pools put in place unorthodox knowledge economies. They are
communal, exchange spaces that allow anyone to re-use/share and edit
content. Users move away from systems of production and distribution that
are based on market relations. The London-based writer, artist and curator
Armin Medosch emphasizes that the most important property of the internet is
its capacity to promote the creation of social communities. He reminds us of
the slogan "Under the cobblestones, the beach!" which was used during the
imaginative student protests in 1968. As example for the formation of groups
in the internet Medosch describes the ad hoc mode with which the democratic
globalization movement approaches spontaneous organization and mobilization.
Medosch makes us also aware of the opportunities afforded by ubiquitous,
unwired networks such as the free wireless network groups Consume.net in
London, Freifunk.net in Berlin and Funkfeuer.at in Vienna, that all follow a
decentralized, self-organizing network model. In a similar search of new
modes of cultural production The Institute for Applied Autonomy and The
Bureau for Inverse Technology both infiltrate and critique the culture of
engineering from the inside.


This series of "DATA browser" books is published by Autonomedia in New York.
Its overall goal is to link emerging cultural practices to the
socio-historical context out of which they evolved. Data that are sent
through the physical networks of the internet are mostly interfaced through
a screen and interpreted by a browser. Browsers such as Firefox display
these data packages that they receive from hosting servers. In a similar
manner, this series of publications frames and interprets cultural practices
that bring together social, technological, and artistic critique.


In a third volume that will come out in the fall of 2005, the editors will
follow the conference "Curating, Immateriality, Systems" at TATE Modern
(London, June/July 2005). This event investigated a range of positions
currently occupied by curators in the context of digital media and
immaterial production. This upcoming volume "Curating Immateriality" will
examine ways in which new media artworks are curated taking into account
their ephemeral and collaborative nature. Theory in all volumes of "DATA
browser" is not seen as a final word on the topics that it engages — with
most essays adding to a collaborative flow of ideas about networking, and
current modes of cultural production.


Data Browser

ECONOMISING CULTURE: ON ‘THE (DIGITAL) CULTURE INDUSTRY’

edited by Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa & Anya Lewin

contributors: Carbon Defense League & Conglomco Media Conglomeration | Adam
Chmielewski | Jordan Crandall | Gameboyzz Orchestra | Marina Grzinic | Brian
Holmes | Margarete Jahrmann | Esther Leslie | Marysia Lewandowska & Neil
Cummings |Armin Medosch | Julian Priest & James Stevens | Raqs Media
Collective | Mirko Tobias Schäfer | Jeremy Valentine | The Yes Men

Published by Autonomedia (DATA browser 01)

2004, ISBN 1-57027-168-2, 256pp.

ENGINEERING CULTURE: ON 'THE AUTHOR AS (DIGITAL) PRODUCER'

edited by Geoff Cox, Joasia Krysa

contributors: The Institute for Applied Autonomy | Josephine Berry Slater |
William Bowles | Bureau of Inverse Technology | Nick Dyer-Witheford | etoy |
Matthew Fuller | George Grinsted | Harwood | Jaromil | Armin Medosch | Raqs
Media Collective | Redundant Technology Initiative | Pit Schultz

Published by Autonomedia (DATA browser 02)

2005, ISBN 1-57027-170-4, 240pp.