Print this page

Author: Richard Barbrook

Internet Ideology

REFF: Most of the technologies which are arising in these years are about knowledge and information. Do you think that they are the most revolutionary technologies of the last centuries? What do you think about it?

RB: The first thing I would say is that if you look at the last century, the key technologies are probably antibiotics and the contraceptive pill. These are actually the most important technologies ever invented. Also maybe mass transit, as cars and above all airplanes. These are technologies that really have transformed people’s lives but it’s interesting that the convergence between computing media and telecommunications is actually seen as the societal shift in technology. You have these technologies which maybe are not the most important but, because they were given this theoretical and ideological role of bringing on the new society, they are seen as the most important technology even if we could argue that they’re not. I personally work with these technologies so obviously I have an interest in saying that Internet is a very good thing. I am also a writer and the fact that I can distribute my writings, I can put up videos and Flash presentations and I can access so much stuff on the Internet, is fantastic. But I doubt that these technologies are important as antibiotics or contraceptive pill. For instance now days you may not die by a minor infection and women would not die giving birth; actually women can control their own reproduction. And what about the fact that you can travel from country to country by airplane very cheaply now? Those things are probably much more life-changing than information and communication technology. It’s not that information and communication technologies are a bad thing or that we should dismiss them, it’s just that I think that we should be sceptical about the way they have been used for ideological purposes. There is a real positive benefit in the convergent technologies, but we should be sceptical about the ideological use that has been made of them. The ideology of Internet comes before its invention; both Russians and Americans thought the Internet was going to create a new society and they both wanted to claim that their empire was building the new society; therefore the Internet took on this much more exaggerated role. The other thing is that if you are a writer or you are involved in the media or you are a journalist, obviously you are going to think that these technologies really affect you as the most important technologies. People that are working in the communication and information industry, or the intellectuals, those people are obviously going to be obsessed by this technologies, but they tend to exaggerate their own technologies and forget about these other things because they can just take antibiotics!

REFF: One new thing is the example that technologies may give to other disciplines, as, for example, does the open source, which is not only about software, it can be applied to agriculture, politics, everything. Is there a real opportunity?

RB: I think it is the other way around. It’s not that the technology has created a culture, it is that people have wanted these possibilities and technology express them. Guy Debord and Gil Wolman wrote a famous essay on ‘Methods of Détournement’ in 1957 [1] saying what artist should do in this mass media culture. Artists should be able to appropriate the mass media culture, artefacts, cartoons, films, advertising and then remix them – that’s what detournement really means. Debord was right in saying that since we live in this mass media culture, actually making art about it or being creative about it, implies that artist have to continually refer to it. When Debord made his film, The Society of the Spectacle [2], he had to get a very generous patron who allowed him to buy a film, cut it up, and then go to the studio and re-record it and re-dub it, a very laborious, difficult process. When we made Class Wargames Presents Guy Debord’s The Game of War [3], we managed to do it with a very small grant from the Arts Council of England, a Mac laptop, Final Cut and we only had to go to the studio to record the voiceover. We can mix the voiceover into the whole, mix the images into the voiceover through one Laptop. It has taken 50 years for the technology to catch up with what someone has done in 1957. Someone would argue that this is actually what the Cubists were doing when Picasso was making collages putting a socialist newspaper into the collage. In a sense Picasso was already doing those things in 1910; now we can do this because of these digital technologies, we can take other people’s films, we can put our own performances together. I think it is the other way around it’s not that the technology has created the culture, it is that people have wanted these possibilities, these technologies that actually were often developed for other things. I remember an old hippie from the 1960s who said that he would always remember when he used to build disco sound systems which cut off the sound from one turntable when switching between two records – people had just never thought of that use, taking the two records and playing them together as if they were music. So you are taking a technology and using it for something it shouldn’t be used for.

REFF: We may say that now days tools are available, if you just have money you get them, but in another way these tools are controlled, e.g. platforms, iPhone, Facebook, lots of stuff. Do you think that there is a paradox out there?

RB: Well, that is the paradox of capitalism – it is our labour, we are all variable capital, our labour builds capitalism, capitalism has to organise itself to appropriate the collective to make it so sure that we can only work collectively as through the capitalist social innovation. It’s not a new thing, capitalism’s greatest achievement is that it allows people to work together collectively on a global scale but of course people can only do it in a social relationships which individualizes, atomizes. We’ve been in capitalism three or four hundred years, now we have this very intense socialization but people is trying to cooperate in a different way. I think Facebook is really interesting – I mean it is dotcom capitalism in way, they’re making money out of the advertising but they’re giving people all of this service space for free and they’ve made all this very nice interface, easy to use software. I haven’t uploaded things on my own website because I know it is much easier doing it on Facebook then you can share them with your friends. YouTube is amazing as well. You can just stick up videos, the whole world is sticking up videos and as far I can tell they are not making any money off it. They’re making all sorts of money off Google searches and they’re subsidizing our free distribution of videos to enjoy. And if you think if Facebook did try to control the content people would just migrate to another service because they know what happened to MySpace, and then it just got covered with advertising and they tried to make it too corporate and apart from musicians, everybody, all these 18-20 year olds they’re on Facebook now. In a way they are making money out of this but on the other hand they’re providing us with a free service that’s easy to use. Take the bad with the good.

Let’s answer the question about what happened to the avant-garde movement, I mean I think that’s the interesting. Because fifteen years ago making new media was avant-garde by itself; actually doing anything with a screen was really radical. It is interesting now that that avant garde is being historicised. In the last five years or so people have been writing books about Internet art and they have a lot to look at concerning the last 10 or 15 years. It is interesting because actually just doing something with a screen is considered radical anyway. It is like the Cubist avant-garde, where just making a collage was exciting. You had to make a good collage for people to see, or making a ready-made by itself seemed to be exciting just because you have done it. After a while people said “so what”. Once you’ve got over the ‘shock of the new’, that favorite phrase in art history, you then have to start deciding whether its good or bad, interesting or an absurd concept. So I think to do something avant-garde and new is not going to be necessarily on the screen – it can be partly on the screen or use the screen or it will be collaborative culture. Last Christmas, I met this woman who works at Battersea Arts Theatre in London and she was saying all the most radical wacky ideas of 1960s and 1970s theatre are now mainstream because they have an Internet generation audience. They expect to be able to interact with the play they don’t like just standing there, sitting there, watching the play on a stage. It’s like in the 60s there were people walking through the audience, they want like actors in the audience, you know this guy sitting next to you and he suddenly actually is really an actor gets up after half an hour and starts acting, getting the audience to vote and all this stuff is cause they’re used to participating. And say something that was once seen as wacky extremism, loony stuff, is now mainstream theatre so again that’s the interesting thing about how it does affect the different culture.

REFF: How do you feel with the fact that Joi Ito the founder of Creative Commons, is a venture capitalist and the intellectual property laws in general?

RB: Well, there are two ways in which we could look at it. If you are a vulgar Marxist, as I am, you can say that it is the classic examples in Marx: forces of production develop and in relation to production they eventually become a barrier to the development itself. In this sense intellectual property has become a barrier to setting up this network communications system and actually intellectual property is becoming a barrier to how we use it. It’s like the laws against recreational drugs the bad thing about these laws it’s not just that they’re stupid but it’s that they make people disrespect the law. And the same point can be made about copyright, these too are laws that people don’t obey. Politicians can’t enforce laws that most people spontaneously don’t obey: when a law does not work it is like there is no law at all. It seems to me that a big problem with this copyright law is that everybody is expected to pay for every tune that they ever listen to. On the one hand, you have music as a commodity, on the other, it is a gift. If you want to get a tune for free, you can with a bit of effort. But lots of people don’t have the time to look for free tunes, so they buy it on iTunes just because it is easier to do. However what they are paying for now is not the tunes themselves, it is the simplicity of getting hold of them. This a small example of the weird nature of any intellectual property: the copyright owners sell it to you but you don’t really own it. It is not a fully bourgeois form property (bourgeois property means that you can alienate property and do what you like with the property you bought); with intellectual property is much more like feudal property where the king would deem you a land but you could not do what you like with it you could not sell it. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that people can so easily spontaneously ignore the dictates of these copyright laws!

Within this MySpace version of the electronic agora, cybernetic communism was mainstream and unexceptional. What had once been a revolutionary dream was now an enjoyable part of everyday life.