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Trebor Scholz, "The Truth About Networks"

The Truth About Networks

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

by Trebor Scholz

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. http://www.data-browser.net

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 Sch…fer | 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.