[iDC] Conference Report: Internet as Playground and Factory #IPF09

David Golumbia dgolumbia at virginia.edu
Thu Nov 19 17:07:55 UTC 2009

Dear IDC,

TripleC just published a review I wrote of the conference, which I left 
feeling more optimistic than I have in a while about where all this is 
leading, despite the seriousness of the problems that many of us are 
trying to keep firmly in view. I've pasted a copy of the review below 
the reference to TripleC.


Golumbia, D. (2009). Conference Report: The Internet as Playground and 
Factory (November 12-14, 2009, The New School, New York City, USA). /tripleC
- Cognition, Communication, Co-operation/, 7(2), 401-403. Retrieved 
2009-11-19, from 


*Conference Report: The Internet as Playground and Factory
(November 12-14, 2009, The New School, New York City, USA)*
David Golumbia, University of Virginia 

Christian Fuchs provided an excellent overview of the methods and themes 
in evidence at the Playbor conference in his recent review 
<http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/150/128>; here I 
want to stand back and make some observations about the functions of the 
kinds of work done at the conference, the role of academic inquiry in 
the construction of media, and the possible uses of critical studies in 
the world of practice. More than that, I want to draw our attention to a 
potentially groundbreaking change in the functions of critical theory 
and even academic inquiry.

I will admit to being very surprised by this conference. Like many, it 
turns out, I felt the original theme of the conference was a bit 
"light." This is by no means to fault the organizers; it's a subject 
that many people have been talking about, and that many of us have a lot 
to say about; it's just that the basic questions appear to come mostly 
out of commercial software products (Facebook, Twitter, /World of 
Warcraft/), which few of us in critical studies of the digital world 
consider particularly transformational, even in the long history of 
ICTs. But as the frequently contentious discussion on the IDC list 
preceding the conference showed, it helped to define a fault line in our 
thinking and theorizing that ultimately proved electrifying. 

I have been at many conferences in my life, but I have never been at one 
like this. My impression was not of academics trying to hone their 
theory to fit the latest facts, although some of that went on. My 
impression was of close to 1000 incredibly smart people, mostly but not 
all academics, from a variety of backgrounds, experiences, methodologies 
and orientations, trying to stand with as much critical distance as 
possible from what is perhaps the definitive technological and media 
change of recent times, trying to frame it in terms of the historical, 
cultural, and geographical changes on top of which it lays, and trying 
to understand what is happening and why it is happening as it happens.

As much as the Frankfurt school critics, and later the critical 
theorists of the late 20^th century, engaged profoundly with every media 
form of their time, something about this conference struck me quite 
differently. Because of the distributed nature of ICTs, we all come to 
the subject with different levels of technical skill and even production 
commitments in the very medium we are discussing. This is new; we are 
closer to our object of study, without necessarily being enmeshed in its 
corporate sites of production, than we could have been in radio, 
television, movies, and even earlier regimes of ICTs; this is in part 
exactly the reason that we are wondering whether "social technologies" 
like web 2.0 can distribute skill and understanding more widely than 
they can have been before. 

I was struck by this most forcefully at the conference's closing panel 
discussion. My sense was that a body of knowledge---a knowledge of how 
dramatic, how forceful, and how ideological have been the historical 
conditions out of which our contemporary moment emerged, perhaps 
summarized most forcefully by Jon Beller's invocation of the Armageddon 
that about 2/3 of the world has experienced as "we" have created the 
world of IT---was coming into direct contact with a practice, namely the 
computerization of the world. That very fact is different from the 
printing press, the telegraph, the railroad, radio, tv, and film. At the 
panel Trebor Scholz mentioned that employees from Yahoo, Microsoft and 
Google appeared to have attended the conference, though none of them 
agreed to speak. This seemed just right. The knowledge contained in that 
room was too well-earned to be dismissed by the commercial powers that 
largely run our world; the possibility that we do have some sort of 
technical purchase from which to effect real change, again, very close 
to the subject of the conference, seemed to come to the fore again. 
Perhaps in that room, we understood that technologies almost never, of 
themselves, produce positive social change; that when we are sold a 
story that some particular communication technology and its distribution 
(as has been done with every prior technology---and can it possibly be 
different this time?) will change the world, too often in the past that 
story has concealed very much the opposite. Yet very few of us were 
willing to reject the idea, as one question put it toward the very end, 
that "there really might be something different about information 

Is there? We can't know, unless and until "it" happens, until we see 
mass-distributed ICTs truly undo totalitarian governments, make 
impossible the concentration of finance capital and its domination over 
almost the entire world, or draw input from democratic polities in a way 
that seems structurally different from prior methods, or distribution of 
technology to the poor and disenfranchised helps them to attain 
self-sufficiency without sacrificing their own self-understanding in the 

The advent of ICTs presents challenges and opportunities within every 
sphere of human activity; the advertisement of its opportunities often 
masks the challenges ICTs pose with its other hand while we aren't 
looking. The world is already networked and the world will never be 
networked; we are powerful actors in the network and we are dwarfed by 
the oligopolies that mange too much of it. We have never before had a 
major leader of innovation use "Don't Be Evil" as a regulative ideal in 
the Kantian sense, despite the suspicion that many of us have that such 
an ideal can largely be realized only in the breach. At another panel 
someone asked: "if Google is evil, what should replace it?" Maybe 
something better, but maybe something worse.

I saw this challenge as profoundly reciprocal, and here was something 
really new, and to my mind inspiring. I heard the vague presence of 
Google, Microsoft and Yahoo (and a few representatives of their general 
mindset among the attendees) saying: "if your methods really have 
anything for us, show us." And I heard us saying back: "if this 
'revolution' really is for the good, show us." Both sides, I think, were 
serious in their message for the other. In this sense, I heard a call to 
responsibility to those of us from the world of critical studies of 
ICTs: we need to push even harder on all the fronts we've opened: we 
need to keep working to develop protocols that pull society toward its 
own ethical sense of itself; we need to keep standing and working 
outside of protocol, making outrageous accusations, worrying about 
catastrophes that may never happen. In this global call to bring our 
political and ethical insights into direct contact with the object of 
our critique, both socially and technologically, something really may be 
different this time---and it's up to us, maybe especially the people in 
that room and the people not there many of us were trying to keep in our 
minds---to bring that promise into being.   

David Golumbia
Assistant Professor
Media Studies, English, and Linguistics
University of Virginia

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