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All people are reporters. On media use in the Internet age

by Geert Lovink
What is missing in the mainstream media landscape are background reports, essays, longer interviews, travel reports and what is called "investigative journalism". What is perhaps boring are ideology-critical internal debates about the right line, i.e. hermetic, exclusionary language. Many people know that Marxian political economy is back in fashion. But it needs an update.
All people are reporters
Geert Lovink on media use in the internet age

[This interview posted on 11/18/2011 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://www.linksnet.de/artikel/27082.]

Learn the language of the 21st century, learn programming, demanded the recently deceased media theorist Friedrich Kittler of the humanities. A similar demand could be made of the critics of capitalism, says Geert Lovink. Take your computers to the streets, use your smartphones, experiment! What does he mean? And what does this mean for left-wing media use? Since this issue is not least about our newspaper, let's start with the ak website:

Have you ever looked at ak's website? It looks like it's from the Internet Stone Age, doesn't it?

Geert Lovink: Old-fashioned, water under the bridge, that's not the point. At the moment the website is "txt only" and looks like an online archive. Basically, there's nothing wrong with that, but you shouldn't expect many people to spend time there.

Why not?

Because the web is more than just a treasure trove of yesterday's content. What are users spending their precious time on? The website is not visual and has no connection to the real-time media that people use for their everyday communication. It's not about promoting a connection to Facebook or Twitter. You can do what you've always done - but then do it properly. If background, criticism and debate are central to ak, you should look at how this type of discourse is conducted in the online context and how it has adapted to the new possibilities. My recommendation would be: Don't try to imitate a news portal, but instead focus on your own content and discussions. Emphasize the commentary level, bring in your own experts and try to "shape" debates in such a way that they generate new contexts.

When ak was founded, left-wing newspapers were often party papers, they were intended to agitate. The idea of counter-information also played a major role. Today, there are countless opportunities to obtain information and exchange ideas.

The concept of counter-information has been criticized enough. What is important is to become out of date, i.e. to tackle topics that are not (yet) being addressed elsewhere. What's wrong with "counter-information" is the idea that we don't know what's going on. That is a pedantic and false idea. The other person is not stupid and does not need to be convinced. There is no information deficit on the net, but a search problem. How do we collectively organize the information that is important to us? Why is nothing happening in certain contexts, why do the usual strategies no longer work? What appeals to young people? How does Occupy Wall Street come about? What language, music, aesthetics are used? This is not so much about pop, and certainly not about pop culture or, even worse, about populism. Instead, we should ask ourselves what we like to read, how we discuss it and how this can be translated into an interactive design.

We still rely on longer articles and paper.

That's okay. What is missing in the mainstream media landscape are background reports, essays, longer interviews, travel reports and what is called "investigative journalism". What is perhaps boring are ideology-critical internal debates about the right line, i.e. hermetic, exclusionary language.

Many people know that Marxian political economy is back in fashion. But it needs an update. There is now a different concept of labor, there is ecology, feminism, but also an extremely grown financial world - and the media and networks.

It's not about paper versus digital, or long versus short. Of course we enjoy inventing slogans and projecting them onto the walls. But these slogans come from somewhere, don't they? Thinking and reflecting takes time and material. Aphorisms à la Twitter are, when done right, concentrated experiences. But whether Twitter can be used for discussion purposes, I doubt (it's entirely possible).

How has the internet changed the way we communicate and inform ourselves?

Firstly, there is a (further) acceleration of communication. Secondly, there are many more (automated) feedback loops. We have to show all the time that we still exist, what we think and what we are up to. This element is the biggest problem for the left. It so easy to think we are being made passive and then stuffed full of evil ideologies. But new media power works differently. What counts is active participation - not the stuffing of empty heads.

There's this line in an older song: "The constant sensory overload makes everyday life much more intense, our brains love it and become much more creative." Is that true? Or is the constant sensory overload taking our breath away?

I have my own personal opinion on this, but I'm not a brain researcher and don't want to become one. I can't say whether the brain is flexible or whether the intensive use of new media leads to concentration problems. But it's a big internet debate. People like Nicholas Carr, Frank Schirrmacher, Sherry Turkle, but also the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler have expressed their views on this. I advocate a viewpoint that does not involve medical science. I agree with Peter Sloterdijk that it is about daily practice. We have to master the technology ourselves. So neither offline romanticism nor state restrictions, but more collective self-confidence.

You recently said in an interview that there is no understanding of what is happening around us. We need a network theory that takes the medium seriously. What do you mean by that?

Many people used to believe that the internet was just hype and commerce and that it would pass. This applies not only to activist circles and large sections of the 1968 generation, but also to many media scientists. The potential changes brought about by the general introduction of networked communication are still not consciously perceived, especially by those who are professionally involved, for example in German media theory. Many still cling to the visual nature of the media. The social is not taken into account.

But even more important than such general theoretical deficits is the current inability to critically accompany the new generation. In order to do this, you need to be in the know. A critical external position is pointless. What good is it if a film critic says I'm not interested in the medium, I never go to the movies and I don't watch films? It's the same with the Internet. A theory relevant to the Internet does not come from reading Hegel, Marx or Heidegger, but must come from technological practice. I don't want to make an anti-theoretical or anti-historical argument here, but it is clear that we urgently need a new understanding of theory, especially in Germany. The media theorist Friedrich Kittler, who died far too young recently, always demanded that humanities scholars should all learn to program, i.e. speak the new language of the 21st century. We could also demand this of critics of capitalism who advocate a renaissance of political economy.

One important detail that still needs to be clarified is the importance of the English language and the way we organize translations. At the moment (in Germany and elsewhere) we are still far too dependent on the newspaper and publishing industry.

How has the Internet developed in recent years?

Globally, the Internet now has over two billion users. The growth is mainly coming from Asia, but also from Latin America and Africa. Internet freedom is clearly under threat, both from large companies and from Western governments. China occupies an interesting position here because its firewall technology, co-developed by Western companies, is currently being exported all over the world.

The big issues at the moment are net neutrality, censorship and surveillance and the not very well understood strategies of companies like Google and Facebook. Funnily enough, there is a lot of opportunity for resistance and at the same time the danger that we will mess up this unique global medium for everyone. If the internet disappears in its current form, we cannot assume that it will reappear in a similar form at some point. The basic structure is too unstable for that. This is why we are calling on everyone to play a massive part in defending and actively shaping Internet freedom.

Two years ago, the 9to5 office community wrote in our newspaper: Contrary to popular belief, young precarious people are by no means isolated, as social relationships are proliferating excessively on Facebook, StudiVZ and Twitter. These connections are the basis for a new collectivity and resistance. (ak 541) Do you share this assessment?

Absolutely. But the problem is the diversity of weak links. The current practice could also be understood as a naive, initial phase of trial and error that we are all still in. We are discovering the greater Internet area, the entire galaxy, just as we discovered surfing the net in the mid-1990s. However, this astronomical view will not help us much. More important is the question of how the technology can be used in everyday life. I'm not saying that the global scale is insignificant or that we should all just focus on our local environment. Ned Rossiter and I are using the term "organized networks" to advocate the creation of tools for fixed connections.

What does that mean?

The software should help us to master the many tasks of everyday life, in the local and social environment, and provide us with filters so that we can determine what is important - not the state or Facebook.

The Internet and networks like Facebook have played a major role in the protests and revolutions of this year.

That is true. But it is important to emphasize that the net did not invent these movements. Many representatives of the press like to spread this myth. Even deconstructing it, which is correct in itself, is becoming tedious; for those who are in the midst of mobilization, such criticism is of little use. Criticism of utopia is always the order of the day, but what we need now are social laboratories. Get the computers out onto the streets! The so-called virtual and the real are not contradictory; today's cheap electronics make many things possible. Just think of the protest portal Occupy Together and the worldwide online television of Global Revolution (http://www.livestream.com/globalrevolution). Just think about what we can do with something like Skype! Many people don't even know they've become radio reporters because they haven't really discovered the audio functions of their smartphones yet. Of course we have to have something to report. But that's no longer a problem, is it?


Geert Lovink is a media theorist and activist, co-founder of the Institute for Network Culture in Amsterdam (networkcultures.org) and is looking for alternative social media approaches with the Unlike Us campaign. He has published several books about the Internet; his new one will be published by transcript in 2012: "Das halbwegs Soziale".
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