Open Knowledge, cyber-activism and social uses of technologies are some of the topics that Dutch Media theorist and activist Geert Lovink likes to tackle. He is Associate Professor in the Media & Culture department at the University of Amsterdam and holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. He is founder and director of the Institute of Network Cultures and co-founder of Internet projects such as The Digital City, Nettime, Fibreculture and Incommunicado. Lovink is also the author of "Dark Fiber", which has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Romanian, German and Japanese.

Lovink visited Spain this week to talk about ‘The politics of open knowledge production’ at El Círculo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, and ‘About critic culture in the Internet’ in Seville at Zemos98 Festival and Enrique Sacristan from Servicio de Informacion y Noticias Cientificas(SINC) conducted this interview:

SINC: Everyone talks about Internet, but who controls the Net?

Geert Lovink: It would be timely and correct to say that it is a complex matter but that wouldn't satisfy the reader. Internet governance is the perfect 21st century battleground that so far has been nothing but a sleeping volcano. There is still some truth in the thesis that the U.S. Government, in the end, controls the Internet. Nothing much has changed, but that's no surprise with this aggressive U.S. Administration. The military and secret service control has been neatly covered up by what these days is called 'global governance'.

What rules is the idea of a 'working consensus' between national governments, industry and civil society (which is you and me). Most of these representatives are not chosen through ordinary elections.

If you are not a bureaucrat, technologist or engineer you would find all these ideas pretty scary but in internet circles this set of concepts is all praised as extraordinary balanced and open. The last thing one would do is hand the internet over to the United Nations, no? Or worse, to the Chinese government. So, if you are not a libertarian neo-liberal technocrat, this world ain’t yours. My advice therefore is: stay out of this mess. It is not worth the anger.

SINC: What is your advice to make a good social use of the Internet?

Geert Lovink: There is certainly a return of the social as a virtual virtue.

Social like in the U.S. American definition or social as we use the term in Europe? The first it means a collaborating group that works together to reach the target. The second means welfare state class compromise. Or should we even say socialist? Or even nation-socialist? (let's not go there, I would propose). The problem is that the terms that we use in new media culture are not self-evident. It is the task of us, net critics, to point at this. This should also be done with the so-called social networking sites such as MySpace and YouTube. What we need to understand is how social is creating new social relationships.

Of course, this software is not autonomous. It is not God-given code but produced by a small and easy to define class of white male geeks, backed up by somewhat older investors, managers and marketers with the same social background and ideological mindset. Their idea of the social is driven by the notion that we are all 'friends' who connect in a 'network'. It is a world without adversaries or conflict. That's is the social a priori. The Other is put beyond the network horizon. Not the family, the tribe, the workplace, school or the party but the network in which all these older structures neatly feature. The network is aimed to further our careers and 'contacts'. We want to see more, know more people, hear more bands. What drives our subconscious attention are the weak ties: the film we may not have seen, the friend of colleague we might not have met.

How to make use of this? That's up to you. For young people it's fun. I hope that at least everyone is aware of the cultural logic that is at work here, and the commercial interests behind this mad drive to datamine your profile and user behaviour.

SINC: What is your opinion about blogs and bloggers?

Geert Lovink: Much like social networking sites blogs are products of the underlying software architecture. Blogs are userfriendly web publishing tools but also create a specific type of subjectivity. I am interested in blogs invite people to reflect, to say something about themselves.

Blogs are the follow up of the 1990s homepage and in that sense something private. Obviously they are out there, in the open. It is this mix of private and public, this swift in mass culture that interest me. Why should we reveal so much to the anonymous public?
There seems to be a strong drive to express some last bits of uniqueness in ourselves. We all know that we are just a bunch of numbers, target of ideologies and marketing. Nonetheless, we sometimes find the right tools, in the right Zeitgeist, to undig that unknown bit called the Self.

SINC: You founded with Pit Schultz the mailing list ‘Nettime’ for networked cultures, politics and tactics. What can you tell us about this experience?

Geert Lovink: I met Pit Schultz, who lived in Berlin, around the same time as Internet started for both of us, in 1993. I got my first PC in 1987 and got used to bulletin boards around 1991 when I got my first modem, a year after I got my first Toshiba Dynabook laptop, one with a 286 Intel processor. We had the same interests outside of academia in media theory, arts, electronic music and pirate radio. We both wanted to stuff, but at the same hold back, observe. Pit was perhaps more the slacker type, I was more the political activist.

Anyway, Nettime was first and foremost an attempt to formulate a post-89 European critical discourse for those who were involved. The net criticism that Nettime as a email-based mailing list and set of international meetings and publication stood for was always immanent. It was informed and came from inside computer networks. Quickly, already in 1995, Nettime turned into US-European encounter that tried to formulate an answer to the aggressive commercial discourse of Wired magazine.

Nettime somehow lost its influence around 1999, at the height of dotcommania, also because it did not migrate to the Web. The collection of lists in five or so languages still exists but lost its spirit. I am still on at it still fulfils a modest role.

SINC: Do you support free software? What do you think about Linux and Creative Commons?

Geert Lovink: I am in favour of all that, and use it myself. But that's not the point. My concern is how (independent) creative workers are going to be able to make a living on the Internet. We should start to say no to the tech-libertarian pushers who only offer us the possibility to give away our content for free. Such technical solutions are most like not going to come from the USA, so there is a unique role here for Europe (and perhaps the Asian-Pacific region) to build a digital commons in which both 'open knowledge' and a sustainable economy for creative producers are realized.

Of course we can also think of funds, advertisement and the redirection of profit from hardware and software manufactures, search engines and telecom firms, because in the end they are the one's who profit most at the moment from all the free content.

SINC: You say that some artists resent the ‘all free’ philosophy because it doesn’t allow them to make a living. What solutions do you suggest?

Geert Lovink: One could do long-term proposals, and find personal solution for the short term. In Madrid I spoke about a micro-payment system so that artists, designers and writers can start to make a living on the Internet. There is a general acceptance for this, just look at iTunes but also the ringtones and other services that people purchase through their mobile phone. It

SINC: What is the state of the art in media activism?

Geert Lovink: Not much has happened over the past years, I have to admit. It's in particular the rightwing populism that has taken over the initiative.

Just look at the way the Dutch anti-Muslim film by Geert Wilders has been launched. This is not much different from the tactics used by the so called digital djihadists. Regular TV channels refused to even consider broadcasting it. Websites like Indymedia are too much focussed on news production and do not leave enough room for social conspiracies, rumours and desires. The challenge ahead is how to deal with the persuasive logic of the social networking sites. Activists have so far ignored sites like Skyrock, Bebo, Hyves and StudiVZ. This might change. I recently heard of a first example of multitude mobbing on the French MySpace site. One way to go is to invade these online social networks. Another would be to own them. There is now enough
(free) software intelligence in social movements, right? So maybe it is time to develop something bigger than just a wiki.

Dream up, you revolutionary geeks. Leave your Drupal ghettos and take on the world!

We need you!

SINC: Finally, If someone wants to change this unfair world, what would be your advice in the area of media and new technologies?

Geert Lovink: Build a movement first and then start to think of technology. We enter a phase in which it is going to very attractive to think that with the use of media and networks alone we can change the world. This is a trap. We need people and their long-term commitment. And most of all, we need new political and aesthetic concepts that are planetary and multilingual in nature. The new social movements that we created by the post-war babyboom generation have been streamlined and suffer from NGO bureaucracy fatigue. NGOs have joined forces with PR and marketing firms in order to get their message across. I do not believe this is the way to go.

We need more reflection and research skills. Perhaps we also need a better understanding of the network logic and the way we can use the current visualization tools (maps, and so on). Maybe we also need less lifestyle and identity politics because I find that increasingly boring. I am not saying we need less style, because there is certainly never enough of that. We have to ask ourselves: how can we design irresistible memes that young people relate to? The anti-globalization movement, in my view, worked too much with punk and hippie motives. We should do a better job and design a coherent collection of unlikely futures to show that the other world is not only possible but already out there.