[iDC] In response to Tiziana

Gere, Charlie c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk
Thu Jul 6 12:45:43 EDT 2006

This is all extremely interesting and stimulating, and three thoughts occur immediately on reading the quotes that Trebor has excerpted from Benkler's book, Tiziana'a reply and Trebor's response to Tiziana. 

One is that some of the claims and counterclaims seem reminiscent of the debate between Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Jean Baudrillard in the early '70s, in which Enzensberger argued for the mobilisation of the radical, reciprocal and communicative power of the media, which Baudrillard countered by arguing that the media function to forestall any reciprocity or communication. Has the so-called networked public sphere offered the best opportunity to put Enzensberger's ideas into practice, and ended up proving Baudrillard right, in that the capacity for everyone to engage and make representations via electronic networks fails to produce a meaningful public sphere precisely because of that capacity. It would also be interesting to revisit this debate in the light of the question of network topology and its relation to ideas of complexity, and of Tiziana's rethinking of the power of the 'informational biomass'. 

Secondly some of the ideas Tiziana mentions in relation to Lazzarato and Tarde remind me of what seems to me to a curiously mystical strain in some Italian autonomist thought, that almost seems reminiscent of ideas such as Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere. There is perhaps a kind of neuromysticism that sometimes seems to me to emerge in relation to discussions of the Internet, that conflates a neuronal understanding of the operations of the brain with that of society, understood as the result of numerous interactions and events, both of which conceptions in turn confirm and are confirmed by discourses such as complexity, and seemingly embodied by new electronic networks. (This also relates, I guess, to Marx's concept of the General Intellect, much quoted by autonomists.)

A third point about Trebor's defence of the power of blogs: It seems to me that blogs and other such means need to be a lot more than merely a corrective to conventional mass media, if they are going to produce a substantially different kind of public sphere. Otherwise they risk both merely shoring up the status quo and becoming an excuse for tolerating the increasingly craven mass media, 'it doesn't matter that Fox/The New York Times/the BBC don't report [fill in atrocity/scandal here] because some blog will deal with it'.

Charlie Gere 
Reader in New Media Research
Director of Research
Institute for Cultural Research 
Lancaster University Lancaster LA1 4YL UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1524 594446
E-mail: c.gere at lancaster.ac.uk

-----Original Message-----
From: idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net [mailto:idc-bounces at bbs.thing.net] On Behalf Of Trebor Scholz
Sent: 06 July 2006 15:43
To: IDC list
Subject: [iDC] In response to Tiziana

>my research ... is about how digital communications affect the 
>unfolding of the war on terror, but substantially it is about the 
>globalization of network communication in a neocolonial mode - 
>including exit strategies from it).

Thanks for your inspiring post, Tiziana, and welcome. Let me respond in the hope that I understand your complex arguments clearly enough. Please do correct me if I¹m off the mark. 

I think it¹s important to intensely listen to voices with whom we don¹t agree, voices who may have a very specific and by all means limited set of, perhaps all too safe- even mainstream, references. I¹m not sure if Benkler is really a believer in transhistorical capitalism for whom it is natural that people fall to the wayside.

>In the [Benkler] extracts... it seems as if the networked public sphere 
>referred to something like a space where 'nonmarket' actors and forces 
>can usefully capitalize that which the market economy cannot (a 
>productivity of the social as such in what has now become a familiar 
>argument in Internet discourse); and also as a kind of spontaneous 
>corrective to a mass media system which, in the end, appears not to be 
>liberal enough (it is too top down, it makes people passive and inert
>etc.) Interestingly enough, the notion of civil society or public 
>sphere emerges around the same time as political economy - almost as if 
>civil society and the public sphere constituted a space of moderation 
>but also support of the free market.

I agree with Benkler¹s assertion that the network is a corrective to the mass media system. There is endless debate about citizen journalism and the blogosphere in relation to civil society. The most frequent argument is that bloggers lack financial resources for investigative reporting and that this shortfall automatically dispossesses them of a valuable voice in relation to the mass media. ³They just don¹t have the means to do in-depth reporting.² Let me ask a question. 

Whose reporting about the lead-up to the war in Iraq was more accurate:
that of the The New York Times/Washington Post/CNN/Wall Street Journal or that of the blogosphere? I¹m not talking about individual weblogs but the unstoppable multitude of blogs that make it very hard to oppress a report or an unwelcome news item. Here, ³publishers² are less dependent on advertisers and it matters less if readers unsubscribe. 

"Russ Kick, is able to maintain a Website, The Memory Hole, with documents that he gets by filing Freedom of Information Act requests. In April 2004, Kick was the first to obtain the U.S. military¹s photographs of the coffins of personnel killed in Iraq being flown home. No main stream news organization had done so, but many published the photographs almost immediately after Kick had obtained them." (p.260)

Dan Gilmore, in We The Media, and also Benkler, describe the fall of Republican Senator Trent Lott whose comment at Republican Senator¹s Strom Thurmond 100th birthday triggered media reactions. (Thurmond is a notoriously stern segregationist and civil rights opponent.) There, Lott said that if Thurmond had won his presidential campaign, ³we would not have had all these problems over the years.² ABC News and The Washington Post made small mention of it. They focused on the fabulous farewell to a ³well deserving² senator. The blogosphere, on several sides of the political spectrum, harshly criticized Lott, and demanded his removal from Senate, which did in fact lead to his resignation a week later.
(This, of course, was not the sole event that led to Trent Lott¹s


There are more, very detailed examples of this corrective function of the network in Benkler¹s book. I¹m happy to post them here if you are interested. 
Voting is another strand of hope for Benkler. That is perhaps not so far-fetched after all. Networked voting, if ever made possible without turning every computer into a total participatory panopticon, could indeed cut the lines in Ohio for those people who, ooops, just could not be let into the voting office anymore. And, oops, they turned out to be African American. And then, remember, there was all the unfortunate traffic re-routing in Florida. Who was prevented from voting? We know the answer, and we have not even mentioned the ³hanging² or ³pregnant² chads yet. So, yes, perhaps there is a way in which electronic voting
would make sense.     

>Is the network a kind of extreme, active limit of the neoliberal 
>economy? And if so, what is it producing?

Yes, readers are turned into media authors. Sociable web media enable places of peer production. I¹m not sure if I fully understand how Benkler thinks of the products of peer-production. That is a bit fuzzy maybe in his book.

However, sociable web media contribute to social change: they help to mobilize and organize; they can aid in the production of demonstrations.
We are, of course, not talking of an either or. It¹s not the 90s debate about the streets versus the Internet, we are rather witnessing a convergence. 

Cell phones help educate in Africa

SMS contributes to the organization of governmental change in East Timor <http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200605/s1649383.htm>

SMS and riots in Sydney (on the beach)

Texting as latest protest tool

Txting culture in the Philippines

What about February 15, 2003? On the same day, millions and millions of people demonstrated against the war. That would not have been possible without the Internet. Howard Dean ³produced²/raised $40.000.000 online.
In terms of examples of sites of communal production, I will just start by referring to: Wikipedia, NASA¹s ClickWorkers, and Freshmeat, the largest web-based open source software repository. What about Michael Albert or Christoph Spehr in relation to this? 


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