Hugh Brown, Geert Lovink, Helen Merrick, Ned Rossiter, David Teh, Michele
Listing Media in Transition: An Introduction to Fibreculture
Internet mailing list dynamics are hard to predict. As tiny living entities these online communities in the making can be pretty stubborn. Their growth and direction is pretty much unknown for the founders, moderators and participants. Unlike the (web) magazine format, the "editorial" policy of those who would like to build up and maintain the list are rather limited. However, fibreculture has had an interesting first year of its existence and the aims set in early 2001 were by and large fulfilled.
One of the central challenges for fibreculture so far has been to at once determine and invent the "location" of a critical Net practice in Australia. Where is such work happening, and who is undertaking it? Academia? The independent "tactical" media groups? The "new media arts" as defined and sanctioned by the funding bodies; user cultures; open source software communities; IT-experts; official entities such as ISOC? The fibreculture facilitators' group felt that what was particularly lacking in Australia was not so much Net practice or new media theory in general but a critical, theoretical reflection on what was actually happening at the crossroad of arts, culture, policy, education and new media.
How might we give the Net a sense of place within our national frame? The third wave or "generation" of Net studies on "virtual communities" seeks to redress this search for heimat (or public home) with its empirical work on ethnographic uses of networked media and its attention to policy and regulation issues. Even so, we felt that the range of work going on in Australia didn't fit neatly into cultural or critical theory agendas, and that the field of Net studies and practice was still very much up for grabs. This isn't to say that it was any less "mature" than its international counterparts - such a distinction in itself demands qualification - but that a cartography of differences was yet to be assembled in Australia that registered and gave a platform to the variety of work being undertaken on and using the Net.
After a few quiet months in which the list reached the two hundred subscribers range the list took off. Fibreculture debated across an extensive and diverse range of topics, including government involvement in (Net) culture; the political economy of broadband scarcity ("ba[n]dwidth"); the imminent end of DNS, ICANN and global domain name policies; globalisation and the nation state; Microsoft and the virtual classroom; "the hoax is the virus…"; the post-information age; syndicated content and the future of Australian writing; intellectual property versus digital technology; media tactics and ethics; free code and the divisions within; Internet culture and advertising; migration, the Tampa crisis and the Net; visualising the WWW; telepresence; online petitions. And then there were a host of discussions about the papers collected in this reader.
These issues constitute part of an inventory we call a politics of the digital present. Not because they are special or noteworthy per se, but because their crisis is articulated in one way or another with a digital mediology. For Régis Debray, 'mediology' involves 'not media nor medium but mediations, namely the dynamic combination of intermediary procedures and bodies that interpose themselves between a producing of signs and a producing of events'. Digital mediology for us, then, is a politics that consists of writing within the media architectonics of an Internet listserve, in the time of the present, in the space of the social. It is a politics of writing the social in the abstraction of a code, and of contesting the codes in which the social is read.
If we can assume, momentarily, to represent a geo-culturally differentiated network of list subscribers, then one of our aims is to very quickly articulate the body social of fibreculture with other political actors. (Or perhaps, if at odds with those actors, to tackle them side on.) Here, we are speaking of articulations with a variety of entities whose spatial scale ranges from State and Federal parliaments and their auxiliary departments, to entities such as the anti-corporation networks and IndyMedia activists; from educational and contemporary arts institutions, to community organisations dealing with local issues. Perhaps this sounds terribly like empire building. Perhaps it's overly ambitious. And perhaps it reads as yet another deluded installment of Third Way ideology. Let's hope not! Certainly it's naïve to assume to overcome in any multi-lateral sense what Jean-François Lyotard astutely termed the problematic of the différend - those phrases in dispute, those cosmologies of incommensurability, that condition the possibility of the social. More pragmatically, such speculation on political arrangements to come speaks of a difficult or agonistic universality, but one which nonetheless enables (to some degree) the very iterations of fibreculture - both online and off.
In the history of fibreculture, there have also been politics of another kind to negotiate. There are the politics of definition and identity that are peculiar to any mailing list: what voices dominate, what modes of expression are considered (il)legitimate, what and whose interests are advocated? People have joined, people have unsubscribed. Going beyond the list's ever shifting phases of enculturation, there are other political ideologies and practices that fibreculture seeks to address and intervene. From the beginning fibreculture primarily focussed on Australian Net culture. Within a global medium such as the Internet, it would be logical to question the boundaries of the nation state. Many of us are very well connected overseas. What was missing was a critical forum closer to home.
Whilst a neoliberal paradigm apparently remains unassailable, challenges to its irrational logic of instrumentality, to its violent assertion of absolute sovereignty, are too often assumed to be illegitimate and are deemed anachronistic or hysterical. The techne of neoliberalism is reproduced across institutions many of us are affiliated with in one way or another. After a decade of evisceration, and effectively without representation, most academics have devolved into bureaucrats, modelling their institutional subjectivities or habitus according to the dictates of DETYA, who determine what constitutes intellectual labour and its value. Contemporary cultural institutions across the country are run by boards and managers who have usurped the authority of curators. Cultural critics play the emasculated game of mutual affirmation, and artists, like all good careerists, display an obsessive preoccupation with enhancing their CV's. Even the culture industries are driven by a corporate institutional complex (including States) for which the integrity and wisdom of markets is paramount; this compounds the dislocation of their unwitting public which, long since removed from most political processes, now finds itself even culturally disenfranchised. The ideology of managerialism has all but triumphed over the administration of the arts. These are just some of the indices that register not so much the abolition as the transformation of the nation state. It is within these prevailing conditions that fibreculture emerges.
Fibreculture wants to be more than social noise (or digital cosiness). An independent critical Net discourse has to fight to be taken seriously. Now that new media are no longer that new, the Net is in immediate danger of being reduced to a vulgar e-commerce platform plus push-media for second grade content of the old media. But the potential of digital media has yet to be fully realised. New and innovative techniques and applications are still being sought. It is too early to foreclose discussion - rather, fibreculture wants to initiate/instigate a vigorous and critical debate about where to go now, in the past-future of the present.
Given fibreculture's broad and for the most part unknown constituency (since many subscribers do their fibrework as lurkers), it would be an instance of utter delusion to claim autonomy in any absolute sense. However, fibreculture has been, and can continue to be, a partially autonomous zone, a space peculiar to the dynamics of listserves and the parallel forums it spawns, such as meetings, books, newspapers, policy debates, consultations on communications and culture, and so on.
This first fibreculture publication may seem a bit academic. So be it. There will be more Gutenberg projects to come. The academic discourse is just one of many discourses and ways of telling the story. The format of the academic paper which dominates this first fibreculture reader could be seen as a response to the all-too-Australian tendency to chat, thereby reducing online debates to the level of casual conversation. While the papers are necessarily presented in the order you find them in, this says as much about the medium of the book, and the particular constraints it places on sequencing, as it does about the content of the reader as a whole and the editorial decisions made. Another mix would have been possible, and it is up to you, the reader, to finally determine how this book is used. Perhaps, too, you might be inclined to join fibreculture and contribute to the ever expanding inventory of writings on Net culture, to a forum whose limits and possibilities will reflect those of this digital present, and the next.
1. ISOC is the Internet Society and represented in Australia by the Internet Society of Australia. See http://www.isoc-au.org.au/
2.See Terry Flew's contribution to this reader for a summary of these three phases of Net studies.
3. Régis Debray, Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms, trans. Eric Rauth (London and New York: Verso, 1996; 1994), 17.
4. DETYA - the Commonwealth Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs - is the key administrative body for funding universities and academic research in Australia. See http://www.dest.gov.au