network culture

On the Creative Destruction of Books

It has become a cliché that the iPad, which is available for pre-sale this Friday will save the book industry. Apple's proprietary book purchasing and reading application, Steve Jobs tells us, is so easy to use and so sexy that it will make consumers flock to Apple's e-books.

If it only were that simple. Capital is in a new position now, having become far more efficient than Communism ever was for creating weapons to destroy industries. Creative Destruction is now loosed like never before, the contradictions that capital inspires destroying industries without offering any hope that they will be replaced.

In this case, my educated hunch is that Apple's painfully quaint bookstore will be an also ran. This doesn't mean it, and it its competitor at Amazon, won't make money. After all, the iTunes Store has been a smashing success. On the other hand, what I suspect is that book piracy will be to this decade what music piracy was to the last. Today, with a little bit of legwork, you can find virtually any music you ever wanted online for free. I predict that in less than a decade this will be true for books as well.


On the Hole in Space

Chatroulette—a site that pairs you with a random person somewhere on the Internet so that you have a webcam conversation—has been in the news lately. But let's compare it for a moment to another project, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz's "Hole in Space," which took place for three days in November 1980.

In this "public communication sculpture," the artists turned two walls, one at Los Angeles’s Century City Shopping Center and another at New York’s Lincoln Center, into two-way audiovisual portals. Video cameras transmitted images from each site to the other where they were beamed, full size onto walls. Microphones and speakers facilitated audio transmissions. You can get an idea for this in the video below. 

Hole in Space lasted three nights. During the first night, encounters were casual and accidental. Many of the first visitors did not believe it was live or thought that the ghostly black and white spectres on the wall were actors on a nearby set. Disbelief soon gave way to the creation of a new social space, to the invention of games and the telling of jokes. As word spread, separated friends and family made arrangements to meet through the portals on the second evening. On the third night, after Hole in Space was featured on television news, so many people attempted to participate in this shared human experience that traffic ground to a halt and the experiment was forced to end by the authorities. Incredibly, Galloway and Rabinowitz's project is all but forgotten today.

In the original video, one woman asks why is it that this wasn't done twenty years ago, i.e. 1960.

50 years after the possible date for the first hole in space, Rabinowitz and Galloway's work remains a hole not only in space, but in time. We have video chat (how often do we use it?) and chat roulette, but we don't have holes in space. Why is that?  

AUDC proposed WIndows on the World in 2004, an extension of the Hole in Space with even grander ambitions but less expensive technology, but apparently our proposal was too boring to be funded. 

The Netlab is going to try again with this in 2010, likely very soon. Stay tuned.

On atemporality

I wanted to lay out some thoughts about atemporality in response to Bruce Sterling's great presentation on the topic over at Transmediale.* We've had a dialogue about this back and forth over the net, in places like Twitter and it's my turn to respond. 

The topic of atemporality is absorbing my time now. I have the goal of getting the first chapter of my book on network culture up by the end of next month (I know, last year I thought it would be the end of March of that year, but so it goes) and it is the core of an article that I'm working on at present for the Cornell Journal of Architecture. 

Anyway, I was impressed by how Bruce framed his argument for network culture. This isn't a new master narrative at all, there's no need to expect the anti-periodization take-down to come, or if it does, it'll be interesting to see the last living postmodernists. Instead, network culture is a given that we need to make sense of. I was also taken by how Bruce gave it an expiry date: it's going to last about a decade before something else comes along. 

Then there's Bruce's tone, always on the verge of laughter. It's classic Bruce, but it's also network culture at work, the realm of 4chan, lolcatz, chatroulette and infinite snark. And I can imagine that one day Bruce will say "It's all a big joke. I mean come on, did you think I was serious about this?" And I'd agree. After all, a colleague once asked me if the Internet wasn't largely garbage, a cultural junkspace devoid of merit? Of course, I said, what do you take me for a fool? She replied by saying she was just wondering since after all, I studied it. I said, well yes, it's mainly dreck but what are you going to do with these eighty trillion virtual pages of dreck, wave your hands and pretend they'll go away? It's not going to happen. So yes, snark is how we talk about this cultural ooze, because that's not only what it deserves, it's what it wants. To adopt a big word from literary criticism: snark is immanent to network culture.   

I was also taken by Bruce's description of early network culture and late network culture. Again, network culture isn't a master narrative. It has no telos or end goal. We're not going to hold up Rem Koolhaas or hypertext or liberalism or the Revolution or the Singularity, Methusalarity or anything else as an end point to history. In that, we part from Hegel definitively. Instead, network culture is transitional. Bruce suggests that it has ten years before something else comes along. He also talks about early network culture, which we're in now, and late network culture, which we can't really anticipate yet.   

I think he's on to something there, but I think we need to make a further division: network culture before and after the crash. The relentless optimism of the pre-crash days is gone, taking starchitecture, Dubai (remember Dubai?), post-criticism, the magazine era, Prada, and hedge fund trading with it. We are in a different phase now, in which portents of collapse are as much part of the discourse as the next big thing. Let's call it the uneasy middle of network culture.

Things are much less sure and they're unlikely to get any better anytime soon. It's going to be a slow ten years, equal to the 70s or maybe somewhere between the 70s and the 30s. Instead of temporary unemployment, we're looking at a massive restructuring in which old industries depart this mortal coil. Please, if you are out of work, don't assume the jobs will return when the recession ends. They won't. They're gone.

But as Bruce suggested, we have to have some fun with network culture. Over at the Netlab research blogs, we're starting to put together a dossier of evidence about practices of atemporality in contemporary culture. You'll be hearing a lot more about atemporality from me over the next month. 

*The talk is below. 

If you prefer, you can now read the transcript online here

On Intensification

Over the course of the last year, I've read and reread Jeffrey Nealon's Foucault Beyond Foucault . Works centering on a particular philosopher are almost always formulaic and rarely interesting. This is a notable exception. Anyone with an interest in theorizing contemporary culture should get Foucault Beyond Foucault. Nealon re-reads Foucault for the present day in a highly intelligent way. To reduce his argument to a sound bite, Nealon looks at Foucault through the lens of Deleuze's essay on the societies of control.The central point of Nealon's book is Foucault (and Deleuze's) concept of "intensification," which explains the way that power operates in contemporary society.


For Foucault, this charting of emergent modes of power is hardly a story of progress or Enlightenment, but a story of what he calls the increasing 'intensity' (intensité) of power: which is to say its increasing 'lightness' and concomitant 'economic' viability, in the broadest sense of the word 'economic.' Power's intensity most specifically names its increasing efficiency within a system, coupled with increasing saturation. As power becomes more intense, it becomes 'more economic and more effective' ("plus economique et plus efficace"; D&P, 207). In this sense, the genealogical shift from torturing the body to training it is hardly the eradication of the punitive gesture; rather it works to extend and refine the efficacy of that gesture by taking the drama of putative power and resistance out of the relatively scarce and costly criminal realms and into new situations or 'markets'—to everyday life in the factory, the home, the school, the army, the hospital." (32)

Nealon reads our society of control (and with it what I call network culture) as an intensification of both postmodernism and modernism, a far more effective system than the disciplinary society that Foucault analyzed. Nealon's discussion of contemporary economics is also insightful: he explains that Marx's old model of M-C-M' (where M is money, C is a commodity, and M' is more money generated by the production and sale of the commodity) is now dethroned by M-M', speculative finance. This is crucial for understanding our contemporary economic condition.   

Get the book and find out more.

Networked Publics 2010

Two phrases occupy my thoughts at the moment:

"All that is solid melts into air," Karl Marx's adage suggesting that under capitalism all existing order will be swept away to be remade for the purposes of profit and efficiency has never been more true than today, when capitalism's creative destruction is viciously turned on itself, causing a global economy crisis.

"The more things change the more they stay the same," or as written by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the original French, "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Not only is Karr's statement a way of looking at what Marx said, but it also seems true of what I've been doing for the last few years. As I finished Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, I thought I had put those projects behind me, but now it's clear that they are not so much books as categories that the Netlab will pursue for the foreseeable future, even as the other categories of network culture and the network city get added.

This spring, the Netlab is launching an ambitious series of panels, Discussions on Networked Publics, at Columbia's Studio-X Soho. These will be framed along the categories that framed the chapters of  the Networked Publics book, e.g. culture, place, politics, and infrastructure.

The first panel, "culture" will be held at 6.30 on February 9 and will include as panelists Michael Kubo, Michael Meredith, Will Prince, Enrique Ramirez, David Reinfurt and Mimi Zeiger. These are among the sharpest minds in the field today and I am excited to have them participate in this discussion with me. There are more plans afoot in this project and I'll keep you alerted as they develop.

In the meantime, I've spent a few days rebuilding various aspects of the Networked Publics site that broke during the past few years. The front page has been fixed after an update to a Drupal module killed the last version. I've also gone in and fixed a number of the links to videos, both the curated gallery of videos for the DIY video conference and also the videos for the three future scenarios that accompany the chapter on infrastructure and bring up consequences of policy decisions regarding network access. Throughout, the material hasn't so much dated as demonstrated the importance of what we were talking about from 2005 to 2008. Seriously though, this isn't a plug for me but rather for the other members of the team, who did such a great job identifying the critical issues.

Get the book, come to the discussions, and stay tuned to this blog to see how you can get involved (or if you're really interested, drop me a line).

On Death

I'm usually late in sending out holiday greetings and this year is no exception. We had planned to make a physical version of our annual family photo but didn't manage to do it in time for the holidays, so we wound up sending out virtual versions. At least there was snow. I sent out the photo to perhaps 150 friends and colleagues and received the usual 20 bounces. One bittersweet surprise was finding out that my friend Daniel Beunza has moved to the London School of Economics. I'm sure it'll be a great place for him—and he's closer to his home country of Spain—but I'll miss discussions about finance with this remarkable colleague. Much sadder was receiving an automated e-mail from Anne Friedman, another friend with whom I co-wrote the Place chapter of Networked Publics saying that she was on indefinite medical leave. I had received this same message a while back and was concerned, but I didn't get in touch. This time, I looked her up in Google news—just in case—and was saddened to hear that she died this October.

I remember Anne and I talking about how I had discovered that Derek Gross, a college friend who died on 1996 via his Web page. This was before the age of blogs, but Derek updated his Web page regularly and when I visited it to see when his band was next playing, I found he had died, together with a record of his experience. Certainly it's something I had never wished to see again, but just as surely discovering Anne's death via the net is not going to be the final time.   

Anne was a brilliant scholar, as evidenced by her books Window Shopping and the Virtual Window, as well as a great friend. She was crucial for not only my chapter, but also for the Networked Publics group and our book, articulating issues that were fundamental to the project, asking and giving me sage advice throughout. I could not have written the chapter of the book without her. Together we sat in our offices, she in her Lautner House, I in the AUDC studio on Wilshire Boulevard, and wrote the chapter simultaneously on Writely (now Google Docs). In so doing, we experienced the phenomenon of our voices becoming co-mingled, producing a third entity that was neither Anne nor myself. I am heartbroken that there will never be a sequel.

Alternate Scenarios Wanted

British author Charles Leadbetter critiques the "Digital Britain plan" for making broadband ubiquitous, much like the Obama Administration's own plan. Leadbetter points out that both are flawed because they focus on infrastructure in a narrow way, failing to address the deep transformations that the Internet is making on network culture and economy. Read his response here.

This section is particularly important:

Accelerating the spread of broadband will not save these industries but make their predicaments more difficult. Here’s the truth: plans to invest more in digital technologies will only pay off if they bring further disruption to economies that are already in turmoil. We will know when politicians are really serious about the coming digital revolution when they start to admit that it will have to cause significant disruption to established business models if it is to pay off.

This is particularly tricky in the UK. The implosion of financial services, long the flagship of the services economy, means the cultural and media industries, in which Britain has a strong position, will take on an even more important role.

Leadbetter has this right and what he says can also be applied to the two countries that I work in, the United States and Ireland, but the problem for capital will come in monetizing what he calls "mutual media," the rising ecology of bottom-up media production.

The problem with this model, also proposed by other authors such as Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky is that it does not give an adequate explanation of how to monetize such media or how to distribute wealth in a remotely equitable manner (let's forget socialism for the moment, I'm talking about market monopolies, in particular the inherent power-law nature of networks and how we can have anything beyond Google). Let's be clear about this: mutual media are incredibly successful not just because we can produce anything we want and upload it, they are successful because it has us producing content for free for corporations.

Make no mistake about it, the day that it dawns on the administration at the New York Times that there are bloggers out there who would work for free, for the fashionable cachet of a byline on a Times column, and that these bloggers are better than many of the Times's own writers is about two weeks before the entire staff of the Arts & Leisure section finds itself looking for work at Starbucks.

The economy undergoing an unprecedented transition. The owl of Minerva spreads her wings at dusk. Theory once again dreamed its successor era: if in the years between 1988 and 1994 theory seemed to be everything only to vanish, in the years since culture has seemed to be everthing, but on a much vaster scale, forming what appeared to be a new backbone in the economy (even if, as I've pointed out, it was finance all along). That's vanishing now and with it, economic crisis is at our doorstep. There is no way out of this on the horizon. The wealth of networks is not in their ability to promote sharing or interaction, but in their ability to strip away jobs and destroy industries without proposing sustainable new ones. 

For anyone who thinks I'm being pessimistic, I do hope you're right and I'm wrong. Really, I do.

Alternate scenarios wanted. My only caveat is that I we don't cook the books or take on more Ponzi schemes like the real estate bubble.




Properties of Networked Publics

I have uploaded the lecture on network culture, intellectual property, and subjective that I gave at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies to Vimeo.

Properties of Networked Publics from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

I was invited by Marysia Lewandowska, a visiting critic at the CCS this year. Her "Museum Futures" project sets the context and is well worth watching. See here.


On Methods

The following text is a methodological introduction to a talk I gave at Bard's Center for Curatorial Studies yesterday. A video of the talk, which is on the topic of intellectual property under network culture will be forthcoming soon.  

At hand today is a discussion of publics and property under network culture. The reading that I will undertake emerges originally out of work that I did while a senior fellow at the Networked Publics group of the Annenberg Center for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The work of our year-long faculty seminar was published in the book Networked Publics and my attempt to make sense of that time outside of my usual field of study in architecture led me to the conclusion of that book, which in turn is now a crucial project tentatively titled “The Meaning of Network Culture: A Critical History of the Contemporary.”    

My goal with this project is to create a model of the contemporary world, much as other writers did for the postmodern era. Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more incongruous that theorists still refer to our moment as postmodern or use postmodern theory to reflect on the contemporary. Although there is unquestionably utility to going back to the texts of the 1980s, just as there is utility to going back to the texts of the 1930s or 1730s, it seems to me that if T. J. Clark wrote in 1999 that “modernism is our antiquity,” for us, a decade later, postmodernism is, if not Rome to modernism’s Athens, then it must be our dark ages. 

I sense that it must be the latter—not because of questions of value, but rather because of the sense that the Fall only came once, at the end of the modern. The end of the postmodern seems to have barely been noted. Where Fredric Jameson begins his discussion of the postmodern with the sense of an end, we have no such sense. Instead, if postmodernism quite clearly ended—except for some academic theorists, who it seems are reciting from syllabi they developed many years ago—we still only sense the end of the modern which, if anything, has become more sharply defined. As Jean Baudrillard suggested a decade ago, with the millennium, the end of the end had been reached. It seems that he was right. 

Thus, when the 90s ended and our decade—and it’s crucial for me that in the United States, at least, there is no signifier for this decade—began in earnest, after September 11, 2001, the sharpness of the idea that nothing would be the same was soon replace by the Bush administration’s idea that the war on terror would be perpetual, that there could be no end to it, that it would be interminable. Now, under Obama, it’s the economic crisis as well that is interminable, a condition from which we cannot conceived of escaping for decades. 

But as a historian, this sense of an atemporal disturbs me. Instead, I’d like to turn back to Jameson for a certain inspiration, in particular to the injunction which he begins the book with: “Always historicize!” In particular, then, the question is, can we make a model that can describe a series of cultural phenomena? This principle of totality, which is crucial for Jameson in his definition of postmodernism, also ran up against postmodern historiography’s critique of totality. This is the famous conundrum in Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.

Lyotard, who very much had Marxism as his target, argued that it was the decline of master narratives such as Marxism or logical positivism that marked the postmodern condition. Still, it’s as if postmodernist thinkers used the Derridean idea of putting terms “under erasure” on postmodernism. For an era that could not have a master narrative, it did. 

Again from our more distant vantage point, it might be possible to follow Clark’s Farewell to an Idea and see postmodernism as being very much the consequence of the end of modernization. Once that process was complete, and the world have been modernized, an event that happened in the postwar era, that world became lost to us. Postmodernism, then, announced itself as having taking place after modernization and, if modernization relied on master narratives, postmodernism set itself adrift as the last master narrative, but one which could not anticipate its own development. 

Still, whether we go to New Orleans to look at Charles Moore’s Piazza d’italia or to Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the works of the Pictures generation in the recent, this work seems strangely unfamiliar. Something has changed, and the change is, if anything, an uncanny one, a sense that we have that while we were caught up in the boom, the millennium, and then the real estate boom, the immediate past slipped from our grasp. 

So to make some sense of all this, it is crucial to build a broad new interpretative framework. In doing so, I want to unfashionably revisit the concept of totality. 

If, as a Marxist, Jameson suggests that postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, maybe its possible to understand today’s condition as the product of networked capital. 

First, let’s look at the role of the network. Already in the Global City and the Rise of the Network Society, Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells did much to demonstrate that by the mid-1990s, capital, and with it society, was becoming dominated by networked flows. 

But second, there is a force to the network itself. As Charlie Gere points out, digital culture was marked by abstraction, that is by the reduction of complex entities into abstractions that could then be traded as commodities. But now, its less the abstracted entity that matters and more its position within the global network. This, I suggest is a fundamental shift. 

With it too, is a more fundamental shift within capitalism itself. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marxist thinkers repeatedly attacked the idea of post-industrialism as deceitful. In their view, industrial production was still a determinate reality. But this soon began to shift, first to the Post-Fordist service sector, as David Harvey convincingly argued in the Postmodern Condition and then to the financialization. The latter is key. In Foucault Beyond Foucault, Jeffrey Nealon suggests that the Marx’s famous equation M-C-M‘ is now superceded by a new equation M-M‘ in which money is intensified without the necessity of commodity production. 

This may seem to be folly, but after all, it is the primary driver of the advanced financial sectors during the last decade. Sure, China produced industrial goods, but the developed world largely abandoned them along with agriculture. Where a 8% return on investment in industry had been healthy in the 1950s, it had become laughable by the mid part of this decade when financial instruments could return triple that to the average individual, let alone the investment bank. 

The economic collapse of the last two years does little to change that. If some nodes have been cut off the network, Detroit, for example, the growth of high-speed trading suggests that the financial system, at its highest (and therefore dominant) levels is increasingly not only financialized but networked. The laughably slow actions of the human trader are now replaced by high-speed computers connected to ultra-low-latency networks located at strategic points in the planetary financial network. Even the suggestion that cities are command-and-control centers of the word economy needs to be questioned when the Philadelphia Exchange is in Weehauwken, New Jersey whil the NYSE is in Mahwah, New Jersey. 

Of course the network has had a vastly transformational effect on our lives outside of it. Where postmodernism was a period of economic restructuring, shedding the old industrial order, our period of restructuring is marked by the intense networking of the world, albeit at the same time as a new economic restructuring in which the educated and creative classes seem to be facing the same landscape of uncertainty that the working classes faced in the 1980s. So, too, the dimension of the network is vast, entirely unlike that of the 1980s. State monopolies have been replaced by competing and converging wireless and wired networks. According to the United Nations over half the world’s population now has a cell phone.

Now, my project is meant as a heuristic model. It is not meant as a new master narrative although undoubtedly it risks that but just as Jameson defended the concept of the postmodern, I defend the idea of network culture as being useful for us to try and make connections where they might otherwise be unclear. Most especially, if the system itself aims at its own total reach, it seems to me that to avoid modeling it prevents us from understanding it and, thus, fighting it. 

I do want to make it clear that I am not in the business of promoting an alternative strategy at this point. First, I think that if it is anachronistic, I do believe in the value of certain intellectual divisions. By specializing and focusing, we can aim for a degree of rigor. Moreover, it seems to me that one of the problems with theory in the 1990s was not that it delivered so little, but that it promised so much. Theory aimed to be not only an explanatory model, but also an avant-garde with specific political projects. It seems to me that the failure and superficial nature of such projects did as much to eviscerate theory as anything else. In other words, I suggest that my project is to always historicize and, to do so, map the system that we find ourselves trapped in but for now, I am leaving open the methods by which such a system can be fought or what it can be replaced with. My intent here is humility, that theorists trained more in politics than in culture might be better equipped for such responses.  

In the investigation that follows, it is crucial to think dialectically and to understand both the positive and the negative within network culture. This is what will concern me for the rest of this talk, which will focus on the specific occasion today, which is the role of intellectual property and networked publics today. 


Shockwave Riders Talk

I delivered the text for the following paper at Ed Keller's Shockwave Riders Symposium
Parsons, 14 November 2009

Hunting for Precipice: An Introduction to Network Culture

Kazys Varnelis

During the course of the past year, my time has been consumed by the task of writing a history of the immediate present. Think for a moment of the postmodern condition. This is the last historical period that we can agree on. But how is it possible that we still live under it, some two decades after it was first identified? Empirically speaking, there’s no question in my mind that the condition of postmodernism has intensified to the point that it has produced a phase shift in history, that culture, economics, politics, technology, and society have become something quite other. Thus my charge, which I do not undertake lightly, is to do for the present what theorists like Fredric Jameson and David Harvey did for their day. This is the last thing that a historian is supposed to do today, but we’ll get to this later.

I call our new condition “network culture” for four reasons. The first is that I witnessed the wars between supporters of postmodernism and modernism and wish no repeat of that debate, which I believe ultimately consumed more energy than it was worth. Second, we’ve already had supermodernism, second modernity, the altermodern, digimodernism, transmodernity, neomodernism, and post-postmodernism. Such attempts at nomenclature have had little traction. Moreover, and this is my third point, basic aspects of la longue durée of modernity are shutting down or transforming: the nation-state, the media, the public, even subjectivity. Fourth, if the machine was the cultural dominant under modernity and if the market was the cultural dominant under postmodernity, our own is the network. All this, then, leads me to the term network culture.

Today, I want to talk critically about this condition. To begin, I want to enter another list of points into the discussion.

First, the role of technology, which the symposium frames as a key topic. There’s little argument that technological advancements have returned to our lives in force. Where the postmodern condition was marked by a deep skepticism of technology, this is far from our experience; skepticism about technology seems unimaginable today.

But this leads to my second point. Network culture not only intensifies postmodernity, it also intensifies salient aspects of modernity. We are, in some respects, more modern than postmodern. 
Network culture abandons aspects of postmodernity and modernity alike.

My third point is that technology is not all there is. This is crucial. We need to understand that network culture has deeper underlying conditions, the most intense of which is the networking of capital. If digitization served the abstracting, reifying tendencies of earlier forms of capital, the network corresponds to capital’s contemporary needs, allowing a new form of trade, the trade in pure information. Well over a decade ago, Manuel Castells observed that it was the network, not the corporation, that determined the economy. The technological changes that we are witness too today are as much technological as sociological. To take one example, look at politics on the net. Yes, there’s a proliferation of alternative sources of information on politics. Yes, democratic mobilization can now take place more rapidly and effectively than ever before. A Jeffersonian democracy is, on paper, made possible by the net. And yet, we are more polarized than ever. The latter is perhaps to some degree a statistical effect of power laws, but it also fits the nature of society itself. Or take social networks. Would these sites exist at all if it were not for the research into social network theory undertaken in the 1990s? And would that research have taken place if it there were not a social need for it? If technology affects some social forces, it concretizes others. This is a fundamental point. Network culture is as much a product of globalization and overcapitalization as it is of any technological forces. It is, however, plausible to say that the relationship between culture and capital than Jameson identified in his work on postmodernism is now replayed in the relationship between information and capital, only at a new level of intensity. The primary industry in developed countries is no longer production, nor is it service, it is financialization. This must, however, be the matter for another talk.

On to my fourth and, I suspect, most contentious point: I need to make very clear that I am not talking about a Zeitgeist or new wave to surf. Rather, network culture is not a happy turn. It as much a condition to take up critical arms against as a state to endorse. My goal is to dissect it in order to understand, as Karl Marx did in his day, what is vital and what is fatal in it.
Still, network culture conspires against us in our effort to grasp it. It does so through its atemporal nature. Some fifteen years ago, Baudrillard suggested that the countdown to the millennium was a countdown to the end of the end, to the end of any sense of temporality. It seems that his prophecy was fulfilled as today, we can’t even identify our decade with a proper name.

In this decade marked by zeros, we inhabit an unprecedented historical void. Jameson observes that postmodernism was marked by the waning of historicity and Lyotard concludes that the postmodern was marked by the end of grand narratives. Our condition is intensified to an utter lack of temporal grounding. We have not only no concept of, or interest in, our own position in history, we have no ability to structure experience temporally. Where postmodernism relentlessly defined itself, we do not. Where postmodernism operated in the traumatic caesura after the modern, network culture hasn’t so much celebrated or witnessed the end of the postmodernism, it has forgotten about it. The past itself is less pastiche and more simulation, not Gravity’s Rainbow so much as Mad Men.

Or take the future, for that matter. Our obsession seems to be with the proximate future, made possible by already patented technologies. It’s no accident that William Gibson sets Pattern Recognition and Spook Country in the immediate past. The future, it seems, is now.

Just as the obsolescence of historical practice is the first way that network culture conspires against us, so does the end of criticism. Again, the lack of critical distance that theorists observed under postmodernism is now cemented by its evacuation. Critical thinking is replaced by the coolhunt, by ideological smoothness, or rather slickness. Let’s not mistake the message of Obama here. It’s not to give hope, not to promise change, rather its to be cool.  

How to address all this? For critical inspiration, I want to turn to one of the last crucial texts of the postmodern moment, a text that all but announced itself as a moment of closure, Hal Foster’s 1996 The Return of the Real. Here, Foster suggests that the neo-avant-garde set out to “reconnect with a lost practice in order to disconnect from a present way of working felt to be outmoded, misguided, or otherwise oppressive.”(3)

The lost practice I am pursuing then, is critical history, the historical demystification of the present. My goal then, for which this talk is something of a manifesto, is to become cognizant of the network as an ideological apparatus.

Unquestionably, the era of the mass (or the People) is behind us. Identified, or rather, interpellated by ideologists on the right (let’s think of Edward Bernays and the development of public relations) and on the left (here Marxist-Leninism), the mass was the great historical agent of the twentieth century. Today, it’s atomized, dispersed into networked publics, into micro-constituencies. Now it seems to be receiving a new level of interpellation, identified as “the multitude,” Hardt and Negri’s “irreducable multiplicity.” 

As the conference topic suggests, we are witness to “emergence of crowd-sourced collective intelligence, global swarm urbanisms, new disruptive economics ['wikinomics'] and ultimately the formation of a global political ‘multitude’-with commensurate revolutions catalyzed by these changes cascading across all cultural and political domains.”

Much as this new spirit attracts me, much as I wish to have hope, it’s precisely here that we need to exercise caution. What could be a better ruse for global capital in its quest to align the world with its most recent financial order? I’d like to recall that in a recent lecture at Columbia, Michael Hardt suggested that a co-op board might be a familiar New York analogy to the multitude. This is something that I, like many of you, will never have experience of due to the permeation of the city’s real estate by the forces of global capital and the marginalization of the hard-working people who live here.

In our excitement about the possibilities of the swarm, we need to remember that thus far the multitude has accomplished little. It’s been a decade since Empire and if Obama is the best the multitude can do, then it seems to have failed us. Couldn’t we at least have a flash mob against torture? Or to close Guantanamo Bay? Instead, we are further from political action than we have been before, more separate and more atomized. If the days of critical theory are somehow repugnant to the academy, is it really better for us to serve as the R+D wing of business? Is academic success to be measured by the startup funds one receives? 

What is the multitude and its significance? History suggests that capital has a need for an avant-garde to grow our sensorium. If Warren Neidich was here, I think we might have had further insight into just what a matter of hard wiring our brains this is. Thus, I want to caution that the multitude is very much a Californian Ideology for our day, a matter of suggesting that the only way forward for political action is to acknowledge the lack of an alternative to the very forces proclaiming it ineffectual. Thus, when we speak of the virtues of open source and nonmarket production, I have to ask, is this because we see a Utopian virtue in which nonmarket production offers an alternative to capital or is it because nonmarket production allows capital to extract ever more labor from us, thoroughly colonizing our everyday life?   

I’d like to bring this talk to a close by adding another dimension to the equation, one that has concerned me greatly during the last year. Economic indicators suggest that we are entering into a long term period of stasis. In part, the brief growth in productivity spurred by the adoption of network technologies seems to be coming to an end. Now such productivity was in great part the result of eliminating newly redundant jobs. This month, the New York Times reports that unemployment and underemployment now stands at 17.5%, its highest level since the Great Depression. If the restructuring of the 1980s destroyed manufacturing, this decade’s recession has mowed down the creative class and the financial sectors. In the latest New Left Review, Gopal Balakrishnan suggests that we have entered into a stationary state, a long period of systemic stagnation. As he points out, Adam Smith never expected the wealth of nations to improve perpetually but rather expected it would come to an end in the nineteenth century as resources were exhausted. Capital’s perpetual growth would have been a mystery to him.

Network culture faces another threat, one that might be understood as an opportunity by revolutionaries both left and right. During the last year I’ve been reading and re-reading archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Civilizations, in which he suggests that complexity is a product of advanced civilizations, that it is something that civilizations produce as they grow and specialize. Our civilization is, if nothing else, hyper-complex. Complexity offers diminishing returns to the energy invested as it advances. Tainter observes that at a certain point, the energy invested is insufficient and people simply walk away from the civilization. Massive layers of complexity are shed as the state declines. As he points out, if population declines, the lifestyle of the survivors is not necessarily worse. Someone in 8th century Europe almost certainly would have lived a life under better conditions than someone in 19th century Europe. 

If we face a stationary state, we face an increasingly complex one, the course of empire may inevitably be collapse. We need to be wary, for there is one way to cut through the collapse and that is evil. Not only did Hitler build the autobahns, Mussolini, so the saying goes, made the trains run on time. The stationary state is the perfect milieu for the shock doctrine. Against an over-complex condition, what better than a state that can cut through the crap, a state informed by the project for a new american century? A state to which, under network culture, we have willingly given more information about than George Orwell could have imagined?

I’m going to close with these words: Brunner’s Shockwave Rider is a dystopian vision of the now. But perhaps not dystopian enough to predict our day accurately or how willingly we embrace it. How, then, do we, like the novel’s protagonist Nick Haflinger find our Precipice?

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