Review of Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media by Geert Lovink

Mihaela Buna on the Psychopathology of Information Overload

Now I can reach any place in the world. Now I can be reached from any place in the world. My body dissolves into the computer screen. My attention is under constant siege. My space is overcharged with spurs to act, react, comment, and update. My privacy has been canceled. What do I get instead? Smooth search algorithms showing me the perfect to numb my sensibility and become a compatible part of the web, the perfect with people I could befriend online, the perfect to access a hyper-reality that is sure to saturate my imagination. The “Log in, sign up, or learn more” hysteria, the compulsion to engage with as many social networking systems as possible, the obsession to become a part of the present overhyped online culture, the constant effort to cultivate a singular self designed to attract virtual soul mates — we’re all pretty familiar with these. But it seems that the risks are even higher than these cool and trendy local affections. As Internet users, we’re producing exploitable data.

The “Please say something about me, transport me further, link to me, like me” subliminal catch phrase is egocentric at best, but it’s a trap nonetheless. And Geert Lovink’s Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media is the perfect hand glass to zoom out the consequences of irrational use of web and info-saturation, offering a critical analysis of our contemporary networked universe with reasoned case studies on media activism, Google, Facebook, comment culture, digital radio, online video aesthetics, Internet criticism, blogging (with flashbacks on German, French and Iraqi blogospheres), and the techno-politics at WikiLeaks. Best known for his commitment to developing the concept of tactical media, a form of media designed to “engage both makes and users, producers and viewers, into a game of appearances and disappearances” and use the wide array of media possibilities in path-breaking and revolutionary ways in order to create powerful networks with grassroots organizations, artists, activists, and other collectives organizing and deliberating around them (the so-called OrgNets), Geert Lovink is a media theorist, activist, and Internet critic who puts forward a detailed evaluation of abstract powers (not absolute but increasingly dynamic), political systems, and web discourses for media theorists, practitioners, and common web users like me to bear in mind.

The introduction of Lovink’s latest monograph, continuing where his Zero Comments has left off, is concerned with the capturing of Web 2.0 before it ceases to exist, at least in the form we’re all accustomed to. With the criticism of Facebook and Google’s privacy violations, conflicts over the supposed neutrality of the Internet, and the real-time dimension (the RSS feeds) on the rise, we should be compelled to decide which side we are on, in order not to disappear in the information cloud. Search engines and social media platforms are constantly generating and displaying content flows, due to our compulsion to engage so industriously in completing our online profiles, posting status updates, and exposing our private lives, blogging and Tweeting about almost everything. Seen at first as a communication infrastructure that could overcome the so-called asymmetries of the traditional broadcast media and solve plenty of the nasty shortcomings of the public space, the Internet is now considered the latest frontier of free communication, speech, and political communication. The perfect host for “citizen journalism,” the real-time Internet urges us to “forget the browser; real-time is the new crack,” signaling the dramatic shift from the somewhat static nature of the old Web 2.0 toward the content flow and colonization of real-time.

Lovink argues that there is no need to store the constant flow as users are less and less interested in saving and storing their information offline; instead, they keep on moving and syncing everything, desperately trying to manage their identity in this real-time flow: “The cyber-prophets were wrong: there is no evidence that the world is becoming more virtual. Rather the virtual is becoming more real; it wants to penetrate and map out our real lives and social relationships. Self-management and techno-sculpturing become crucial: how do you shape the self in real-time flows?” The move from link to “like” standing for the shift from the search-driven to the self-referential in web browsing, the rise of extreme opinions as a direct result of current user-friendly software that invites us to leave short comments on almost everything posted on the web, and the rise of national webs as an effect of the control within the nation-state, all these demand for a contemporary network theory and practice that revolts against the mathematical structures of the current networks and dismantles the emerging concentrations of power such as Google and Facebook, going far beyond describing the net as we live and use it and creating distributed and decentralized networks that counterbalance the current tendencies while also remaining open and safe to use: “We can match untimely aphorisms with future scenario planning, speculative thinking with data journalism, and computer programming with visual studies. The overall aim is to ignite speculative futurism and celebrate singular modes of expressions rather than institutional power plays.”

And what better point to start a contemporary network theory with than the “psychopathology of information overload”? The introduction of Networks Without a Cause engulfs us right into the middle of the web beehive, with all of us users working for the mighty queen bee called Google. Constantly invited by the machine to submit as much personal information (rank movies and music, create wanting-shopping-watching-reading-listening lists, and so on) as possible, we’re indulging ourselves in compatibility and even similarity with others in a “soft narcosis of the networked condition” to the extent that we practically outsource ourselves, becoming what Richard Foreman called “pancake people — spread wide and thin as we connect with the vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” In this context, Lovink argues in favor of a powerful challenge to the free centralized Internet services designed to collect our personal data, social behaviors, and opinions only to market them further to third parties. He regards the construction of social networking users’ takeover as a viable and doable alternative, giving Crabgrass, GNU Social, and Diaspora (all these three initiatives based on free-software and coming from open-source communities) as an example of how the web central authority can be decentralized: “It is not simply that we have something to hide. Let’s hope we all do. What we need to defend is the very principle of decentralized, distributed networks. This principle is under attack by corporations such as Google and Facebook, as well as by national authorities who feel a need to control our communication and the data infrastructure at large.”

In the following chapter, Geert addresses the crisis of the multiple self as aroused by contemporary social media, with special emphasis on Facebook and its software settings designed to encourage conformity and a huge self-branding routine. Trying to answer the question of “What is the Self anyway in a society where millions aim to be unique yet are steered by identical desires?” and believing that a mass anonymity could be the solution that can contrast the current trends of self-disclosure surely leading to self-promotion, Lovink proposes the following way-outs: first, disrupting the self-evidence of the self-promotion machine: “Talking about the dark side of positive thinking is a first step to recover from the mass delusion of smile or die, and more effective than simply joking about the absence of a ‘dislike’ button in Facebook, or the one-dimensional representation of relationships where ‘friending’ is the only option.” So, the idea here is “to reject this, sign off, and delete your user profile.” The second way out Geert suggests is dismantling the consumer desire that feeds the self-promotion machine, while the third way out is all about reintroducing a healthy anonymity in spite of the highly effective tracing technologies now employed by security investigators and national agencies (so, the Internet isn’t actually a free playground, even if it provides you with the perfect tools for creative self-performance: “It’s awesome to be me… but who exactly am I?”).

With his insightful Internet criticism and treatise on the comment culture, Lovink targets the blogs that have reached the level of critical mass, underlying the fact that comments are encouraged while the possibility to respond to these comments is dramatically discouraged by the design of the blogging software. With little to no space left for meaningful debates, blogs remain highly hierarchical, mainly due to their strict dichotomy: content vs. comments. According to him, the current archeology of web commentary, as opposed to the commentary practiced by theologians, legal scholars, and editors of various works, dismisses the genuine capacity of comments to create significant texts by themselves, only to pursue a goal consisting of amoral participation and checking what users are up to and to what topics they are most likely to respond. In this particular context, redesigning the comment ecology is paramount as comments need to be re-linked to the text that has generated them, but without taming their “producers” who need to keep on thinking and asking uncomfortable questions. Being critical in an era of information overload also needs to take a new shape, more adapted to the real-time flows surrounding each of us. Moving way beyond the simple interpretation of every text we read and every piece of news we hear is vital when trying to create the technical Net criticism: “The technical has to be foregrounded through negations and falsifications, not by stating a positive truth. Critique is not founded on philosophical statements, which are then applied to the object, in this case the internet. We must begin and end with a big No. The very act of questioning is enough to generate interesting outcomes. The joy of reversal is real. That’s why we call it Criticism.”

Stressing the importance of creating new media research and coherent media studies that can keep up with the Googles, instead of just trying to impose the paradigms of other media such as television and film upon new media saga and sticking to tight IP rules imposed by mainstream and corporate publishing industry and academia, Networks Without a Cause moves into the direction of a completely new outlook, an outlook that can find its roots in new programs and the cultivation of more self-awareness amongst web users, media theorists, and practitioners who should relate to the contemporary media technologies in a more frank and indisputable way: “Evil or not, it’s time to leave behind academic constraints and open up collective imagination. It’s time to cut back conversations on local limitations and see what the common goals are. There are more than enough tools and platforms available (though few know how to use them fluidly).” Also analyzing the evolution of Dutch radio culture from pirate radio stations located in city squats (such as Radio Mokum) and commercial radio ships (such as Radio Veronica) to the most known Dutch internet experiments, Geert brings into the discussion the free radio techniques used by activist radionauts in order to disrupt the ordinary streams of information and music and create new sound universes that can be extended in all dimensions. However, web radio needs a new philosophy of its own that should include technological crossovers that have still remained unexplored, such as the ones designed for free online telephone services and smartphones.

The alternative suggested by Lovink has a simple label: orgnets or “organized networks,” a critical concept of Lovink’s and Ned Rossiter’s from 2005. Organized networks are developed in order to produce cultural artifacts; they are harboring a huge potential to provoke further events that can strengthen the tie between cultural policies and networks: “Whereas network organizations are more loosely connected and form slightly noncommittal ties, aimed at ‘recharging the batteries’ through information sharing and inspirational talks, the term ‘organized networks’ is more transformative by moving the production of culture onto the Net, and so changing the very mode of organization itself.” Taking a closer look at three such orgnets in action, Culturemondo, Winter Camp 09, and RIXC in Riga, Lovink concludes that experimenting with all the newly emerged institutional web forms is most likely to result into new notions of public broadcasting in which new media have an equal position with traditional media such as print, television, radio, and film. In the context of these efficient orgnets, the current techno-politics at WikiLeaks may seem a good starting point, but only to the extent that this disruptive platform facilitates whistle blowing, namely individuals giving up documents online and exposing the secret communications of authorities. Having triggered the shift from pure hacking to leaking, WikiLeaks has done a lot in terms of openness and transparency. But “To organize and interpret this Himalaya of data is a collective challenge, whether we give it the name WikiLeaks or not.” Geert Lovink’s Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media is a critical yet optimistic endeavor to provide the theoretical basis for a new media theory; an energetic and user- and reader-friendly slideshow, this book is sure to unleash the critical beast in each of us (common web user, new media theoretician, practitioner, activist), concreting our imagination and highlighting the best ways to use the Internet in order not to be swallowed by the contemporary information cloud.

Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media
by Geert Lovink
ISBN: 978-0745649689
From Bookslut.

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