Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia
by Geert Lovink
The MIT Press
by Ashley Crawford
Have you ever been
to a party where every conversation was of interest? Didn't think
so, but as host, Geert Lovink, the founder of Nettime, might just
pull it off.
Lovink's latest book, Uncanny Networks, is a roller-coaster
ride of discussion that ranges from art to politics, techno tribes
to dot.com IPOs, radical politics to futuristic fantasy.
What is even more intriguing about Lovink's compendium is its geographic
range. Although a number of these interviews were conducted via
e-mail, a stunning amount are face to face experiences in various
corners of the globe. I would love to see this guy's frequent flyer
account. Lovink leaps from Sydney to Linz, Finland to Kassel, Taiwan
to Amsterdam, but what is important about this is the internationalist
content of Uncanny Networks. Lovink powerfully links the
virtual to the actual with serious discussions about political and
cultural scenarios in Los Angeles, Taiwan, Albania, Bulgaria, India
and other parts of the world. This is almost a Lonely Planet guide
for media thinkers and practitioners.
Naturally, as in any party, not every conversation will be to your
taste. In fact there are a few that are rather dull, but even those
have highpoints, if only by raising points to disagree with. Writer
Susan George describes herself as "alarmist" and proves
herself all too correct when she says; "For the first time
in history, we do not have much time ahead of us." And Lovink
accurately points out that Slavoj Zizek "seemed to be criticising
film without ever having seen one," in his introduction to
a rather laborious discourse on cinema and politics in which Zizek
goes so far as to compare David Lynch to Leni Riefenstahl.
Lovink rather cheekily introduces his book by conducting an interview
with himself and asks the intriguing question; "Wouldn't time
be better spent writing original pieces? You are not a journalist.
Shouldn't a media theorist stick to theory?" That actually
sounds like a question that a journalist would ask, but it is difficult
to imagine any journalist as well-read, curious and intelligent
Of course the answer is that the nature of interviews is a far more
friendly form to read than the average essay. It also allows what
Lovink describes as "the beauty of digital discord" to
come shining through. This is no more obvious than in the discussions
with Mark Dery, Mike Davis, Paulina Borsook and McKenzie Wark. Dery,
as always, delivers a blistering diatribe, suggesting that "we
take a flamethrower to Newt Gingrich cum Alvin Toffler style laissez-faire
futurism" and takes down Douglas Rushkoff, Arthur Kroker and
John Perry Barlow while he's at it. This is a particularly lively
encounter that takes no prisoners.
Wark on a "third class" - the intellectuals and theorists
who "qualify and interpret the actions of the others"
- takes a fresh look at the role of academics in contemporary society
(although if Wark trots out his old "we no longer have roots,
we have aerials" quote one more time I will strangle him. Davis
on gated communities, and Borsook on the new economy are all riveting
reads. Sadly the Borsook discussion seems a tad dated: lets face
it, talking about Wired magazine is, well, tired especially when
the fate of such dot.com boom publications as Red Herring and The
Industry Standard are so intriguing. Borsook's observations about
the pollutants created from Silicon Valley output is sobering reading
A certain degree of being dated is inevitable. Lovink began conducting
his interviews in the early 1990s, and between 1995 and 2000 posted
many on Nettime. However rather than being a negative, they in fact
supply us with a snapshot of specific periods and modes of thought,
some highly prescient.
Beyond the Western style thinkers interrogated here, Lovink's compendium
is refreshing for its level playing field approach to other cultures.
An interview with Ravi Sundaram is jam packed with insightful information
on both historical and contemporary culture in India. Similarly
Toshiya Ueno on Japanese subcultures, Finland's Marita Liula on
'art in the age of the mobile phone' and Kuan-Hsing Chen on contemporary
media in Taiwan are full of first hand observations from cultures
that tend to be side-lined in contemporary media studies.
Sadly, however, that is true of many of the figures collected in
Uncanny. Lovink makes that point himself in his own interview: "I
don't think I have selected any interview partners because of their
alleged subcultural, pop theory "celebrity" status. I
only wish they had it... The scenes these people are operating in
are small, in fact way too small if you compare them to the hypergrowth
of the IT sector as a whole."
But Lovink's selection of subjects is refreshing for that reason
alone. Although there are some high profile names here; Mike Davis,
Arthur Kroker, Mark Dery and Gayatri Spivak, for example, Lovink
has avoided the usual role call of futurist figures; no Virillio
or Baudrillard or Gibson or Sterling (although any of those would
have been preferable to Kroker).
As Bruce Sterling says in his blurb, "If you want to know what
media theory will say five years from now, then read Uncanny
Networks to see what Geert Lovink said five years ago."
This is a dizzying ride, not always successful, but the odd clunkers
make the more powerful discussions all the more delightful. If I
have one major, and horrified, criticism of Uncanny, it would the
lack of an index - a major and silly oversight for a book so dense
Uncanny Networks appears almost simultaneously with another MIT
tome, Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History,
edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro.
These two books side by side will give any aspiring media theorist
and cultural commentator almost too much food for thought - if that