To prevent undue wreckage in society, the artist tends now to move from the ivory tower to the control tower of society.2-- Marshall McLuhan
If artists have been moving to control the Internet, then they haven't been moving fast enough. At the end of the century the concerns of the artist are beyond the purview of the historic Microsoft treaty negotiations. Far from being an unacknowledged legislator, the artist is subsumed by the term "Internet Content Provider." After defining ICPs as "individuals and organizations" with Web sites, Judge Penfield Jackson asserts, no doubt erroneously, that "most ICPs charge fees for placing advertisements on their Web pages."1 What he means by ICPs are the media empires that figure to hold the most prominent positions in an emerging transnational media system. Such empires, together with their related oligarchic political tendencies, ought to be on trial, too, but they are not. Instead, concentration of power is mistaken for progress, excitement about innovation justifies complete competition, and laws adapt to a decidedly incomplete array of options.
The lack of enduring alternatives in the once-new media of radio and television demonstrates the capacity of the crucible of accelerating competition. As social and ecological wreckage continues, entertainment is winning the battle for the hearts and minds of billions of people. The rise of electronic marketing and corporate Web entertainment is rapidly displacing and parasitizing the oft-announced liberating potential of media, which appears to be scripted for obscurity or secrecy if not elimination. In principle the efforts of artists, intellectuals, programmers, engineers, and others could sustain a productive resistance to the mesmerizing slant of global media commodities. But this will remain a mere fantasy as long as resistance to authoritarian communications systems remains limited.
As has become increasingly common in official public dialog since World War II, 'both sides' of the debate over the future of the Internet follow a fairly narrow ideological path. Basic shared assumptions need to be examined -- for the good of the public -- from the perspective of those who are officially irrelevant.
According to prevailing dogma, the excessive monopoly is a business anomaly that is undesirable for economic reasons. But this exceptional status calls to mind cultural exception, the term used to describe the view that some spheres ought to be exempt from unbridled market forces. It has been largely ignored that the case against Microsoft may be somehow related to debates about cultural exception. Throughout the legal ritual, a monocultural fixation with growth and competition has predominated. Nowhere in the trial proceedings is there an indication that an operating system is anything more than a commodity. Although the court still relies on legal precedents from the steel or coal industries, media monopoly compels a less simplistic categorization. Monopoly in media business is a very near cousin to illegitimate authority in the domain of culture. Freedom for corporations to compete is not the only concern that has precipitated this important trial: resistance to concentrated control over the development of the Internet is also cultural resistance. Unconventional and artistic uses of the medium are diminished when characteristics of browsers are effectively established by decree. Such cultural ramifications do not figure in the calculated rhetoric of the Findings of Fact.
Insofar as the central goals of innovation remain unexamined, the judicial process will amount to little more than negotiations for corporate power sharing in global media. Microsoft has proven that 'innovation' can mean a great many things. Since the Judge neither gives nor demands definitions for 'innovative,' it comes to signify a vague 'value added' quality. But for whom will it be added? Already with the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, the term 'person' had taken on an ambiguous status. Was it to designate an individual who might be jailed, or was it to refer to a corporation? What has changed is that now, far more than in the nineteenth century, anti-trust decisions are framed in terms of corporate needs and rights. Consumers are considered in today's anti-trust proceedings, but there is no mention of citizens. The trial's rhetoric minimizes the role of the non-enterprise. Actions that may be taken to stymie monopolistic force in media industry will be taken on behalf of corporations and consumers, not in the name of fading ideals like equality, civil rights, and freedom of speech. Judge Jackson has no truck with such idealism. He even endorses the Taylorite regimentation of the workplace when he criticizes Microsoft for making it difficult for corporations to prevent their employees from using the Internet. Evidently, in the absence of social ideals, advancement may mean essentially the fusion of the Internet with existing cable and advertising channels. No grander vision of the new media has been convincingly presented.
"Whatever the historical truth of the hypothesis about the cybernetic revolution, it is enough to register a widespread belief in the populations of the First World states, for such a belief to constitute a social fact of the greatest importance, which cannot be dismissed as sheer error."3
The case against Microsoft evokes an archetypal American struggle for freedom from tyrannical coercion. As was the case at the time of the American Revolution, the status of government is in flux. A revealing study by the Institute for Policy Studies, using World Bank and U.N. data from 1995, indicated that 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world were corporations.4 Since then mergers and acquisitions of unprecedented scale have been numerous. So it would seem that debate about power relationships in the software industry sidesteps the more fundamental issue of government authority over business. Governments -- national and retarded, if not corrupt -- may never "reinvent" management and master the glass ceiling imposed by the world market system. Judge Jackson's viral reasoning -- which attempts to undermine aggressively anti-regulatory logic using conventional American business wisdom -- may reestablish, however weakly, the constitutional mandate for the government to regulate commerce. Furthermore it can be argued that this goal, and intense strategic constraints, caused him to posture his analysis. Nevertheless, given the terms of debate, any victory will not be without cost. There remains in the Judge's Findings the contours of pervasive myths about technology and the media, expressed through the bedrock assumptions used to frame an argument about development and society. Ultimately, this shadowy framework is a more significant object of study than the overt, case-specific findings because it is indicative of a consensus that leads to certain types of innovation.
Our quest for truth consists in stirring up the experts, and forcing them to answer any heresy that has the accent of conviction. In such a debate we can often judge who has won the dialectical victory, but we are virtually defenseless against a false premise that none of the debaters has challenged, or a neglected aspect that none of them has brought into the argument. 5
One is led to believe that, absent Microsoft's machinations, innovation has been ideal. But the extent to which the late 1990s have been a fruitful period for the Internet is arguable. Certainly there have been thousands of products and new companies. Still, boundaries and incompatibilities have multiplied, too, making the creative use of the network problematic. With respect to security, for example, development has led to a closure of possibilities. Internet software services that use unconventional protocols are not allowed entry into the trend-setting bastions of corporate media. Their firewalls trade innovation for impenetrability. Whereas highly insecure mechanisms promoted by Microsoft (eg. executable email attachments, or the NSA key6) are hardly questioned, expansion of the ways browsers can communicate with servers is taboo.
It is tempting to compare the climate for change in media with
that of the weapons industry. The latter preserves a remarkably
open field for creativity. Unwilling to compromise its freedom to
imagine new ways to kill and immobilize, the Pentagon refuses to
abide by international accords to ban depleted uranium weapons,
land mines, cluster bombs, and nuclear weapons testing. Similarly
unimpeded has been recent development of machine vision,
recognition and surveillance systems: military and military
spin-off technologies that are being enhanced with databasing,
encryption, and networking. But then the extension of the war
machine is a rather familiar form of innovation.
The support lent to the prosecution by cases filed on behalf of dozens of states can be interpreted as an endorsement of a different, transgressive type of innovation that was prominent in the early 1990s. Power in the software industry was shifting away from a single dominant operating system vendor. Languages were introduced that promised more distributed development of internet software. In the process of translating the abstract will of the people into a workable legal strategy, however, there was a distortion: business logic prevailed and the interests of the non-enterprise fell away. Rather than redressing wrongs to individuals, attention was focused on the damages accrued by other corporations. Yet without a doubt the companies that have complained about being eliminated are themselves capable of similar acts of corporate cleansing. And so, as Wall Street appeals for more of the same, the whole case runs the risk of suffocating in the vacuous realm of American business ethics. Occasional punishment of a monopolist is unlikely to alter the present tendency to view the media as first and foremost a business opportunity.
A less resigned narrative might question how consumers are harnessed to the putative needs of the market.7 It might relate how the legitimacy of technological progress and positive innovation depends upon how severely people are coerced, misinformed, and used. In the context of American journalistic commentary about media development, such a narrative is practically unheard. This gives an indication of the strength of the ideology of free choice, a world view distorted by superabundant hype. Global media corporations, while maintaining an aura of innovation, offer constraints disguised as choices. In the commercial system of purchased attention, whose preservation clearly is not threatened by the trial, choices are only provided if they are profitable. Microsoft is certainly not the first to package its self interests as features.
Who or what, then, is likely to foster meaningful choice? Artists and relatively autonomous collectives do tend to operate with a greater allegiance to principles other than profitability. To some extent the transgressive virtues of the early period of the World Wide Web are still operative, such as inexpensive international exposure for small groups, individuals, and organizations. Yet, in the time that it has taken many artists to learn how to produce compelling work for the Internet, problems have emerged. The tendency of average Internet users to arrive at such independent sites has diminished. A promotional matrix has come to predominate, not only through inter-linking and co-marketing, but also because usage patterns are driven by search engines that deal in keyword payola. Most search algorithms now are deceptively tuned to favor content that is heavily promoted and frequently changed.8 In spite of viable initiatives (www.name-space.com) to establish a more flexible naming mechanism for Internet sites, the broadcast media cartels are reestablishing themselves in the new medium with an exclusive system of costly keywords. That this was not a technical inevitability, but the outcome of social situations and marketing imperatives, is obvious.
"These conditions may not seem promising," writes David Antin,
but artists are as good at surviving as cockroaches, and they've developed...basic strategies [such as to] take the lack of technical refinements as a given and explore the theater of poverty.9
Arguably this survival technique has contributed to the present compromised situation whereby artists function in very limited ways through the mass media. One might expect that the marginalized, at least, would recognize their situation and tend, through cooperation, to favor another order. But such is not the case in the arts, generally. In spite of their marginalization -- from the terms of debate in law, and from access to audiences -- artists and public institutions continue to volunteer their allegiance to forms of domination. Lacking solidarity and enacting the poor theater of reactive survival, they contribute to the centralization of control over Internet culture. Caught up in the battle for eyeballs, art is pressed into the service of marketing, and artists capitulate to a technological evolution governed by "what's cool."
The majority of cultural workers in the artistic sphere continue to adopt strategies that are inimical to a cooperative future at variance with the deepening oligarchy. The new underground of contemporary Internet art earns its name more from obscurity than from subversiveness. In responding to the rather overrated possibilities offered by the latest software, artists (and institutions) celebrate the new dark age, declaring their loyalty to products that were not made for art, often to the exclusion of interesting alternatives that could be more constructively developed in the future. Many artists are producing sites that are incompatible with the free operating system, Linux. Blind from convenience, these artists queue up for tour guided spelunking -- waiting to explore what was left for them by the tectonic shifts of the industrial codes.
Admittedly, when words like "social," and "collective" tend to inspire fear and mistrust, real options may be limited. But in embracing all manner of superficially liberating technologies many artists adopt a weak argument, implicit in much of Judge Jackson's Findings, that commercial endeavors, if left unfettered by monopolists, would sustain incremental progress. This catchy siren-song can be heard outside of aesthetics in the popular information mantras: that there is more information than ever, and that it is more accessible than ever, etc. Similar messages, like commercial jingles for the new millennium, are repeated recursively from the mouths of independent artists as well as through institutionally branded cultural products.
Within a given society, selection will be governed by many kinds of special interests, including class interests.... The traditional culture of a society will always tend to correspond to its contemporary system of interests and values, for it is not an absolute body of work but a continual selection and interpretation.10
This system of interests and values now operates through software. The social contradictions mediated and expressed through these codes are cloaked in a fog of technical problems (soon to be fixed) and alleged consumer preferences. Selection and interpretation has begun to be automated, and the U.S. Senate may soon pass a law demanding that all schools receiving federal funding use filtration software. The censorship industry's rhetoric is full of terms like 'Master Database.' One remarkable policy page from the Hawaii Department of Education reported that, in spite of excluding dozens of categories of information, they make no "value judgments."11 As filtration, subsidized reception, and the promotional mode of address intertwine themselves ever more deeply in the processes of communication, the works and practices of intellectual and artistic activity likewise exhibit the language of the spectacle. The inexperienced and passive are initiated into a yearly procedural metamorphosis, each advancement coupled with its hidden costs.
Being so caught up, so mastered by the upgrade and by the fight for market penetration, most are in no position to recognize let alone resist the flight from technical potential. Even having perceived missing alternatives, one finds that constructive intervention is checked by market momentum, an undertow of planned obsolescence and ersatz imperatives. A profoundly anti-democratic technical evolution continues to rearrange and recode the infrastructure of the Internet according to the values of the so-called 'business community.' Artists cannot address their work to a wide audience on the Internet without getting caught up in the maelstrom of reorganizing protocols, procedures, and versions. Although this instability does engender opportunities, it also keeps artists from developing sustained, personal processes.
Art is perhaps in the process of playing out its own disappearance-- in my opinion this is what it has been doing for the last century. The problem posed today is perhaps that we have reached the end of this process and that we are entering a period where art no longer does anything else than stimulate its own disappearance because it has already disappeared in reality, because the media have already carried it off, because the system has.12
The existence of millions of self-proclaimed artists and 'art directors' does not contradict Baudrillard's provocative assessment. More and more they are trained in the production of consumable information goods, needed by various industries, like entertainment and advertising. As these industrial demands have become more intense, the capitulation of educational institutions has been swift, if incomplete. Likewise, 'computer art' sections in American bookstores contain little more than users' manuals for popular software packages. The art of data grooming has been commodified. The equivalency of art and advertising software might seem remarkable to earlier generations of computer artists who worked with machine instructions and who re-purposed technology. The shift signals the tendency for artists to operate at a significant remove from the technical potential of the computers they use. In doing so they may abandon crucial means by which to alter conventional usage.
The importance of developing technical potential, and the actual potential of the media, are subject to debate. Baudrillard rejects as unfounded the socialist premise of Brecht and Enzensberger that liberation is immanent in the media. For him the media have become "gigantic substitution systems."
In integrated circuits there is no more need for the intervention of a subject. On the contrary, everything works best when the subject is shut out, excluded. Fundamentally communications consists of networks, and in a network there is no longer any identifiable position of the subject. 13
This alienated perspective taunts, deflates, and deconstructs all strategies. Yet there is a need for resistance formations that will check further articulation of systems of coercion, totalized exclusion. Whatever the prospects for coordinated resistance -- and Baudrillard may not be far off -- innovation is always with us. There can be little doubt that if there really is hope for reversibility and meaningful choice, a collective agency must emerge that is capable of restructuring the network and the goals that develop it. With legal regulatory mechanisms responding so slowly to the constant strategic changes of the media and technology sector, a radical intervention into the technological codes of conduct becomes more important. But how? When the abstract faith that technical innovation will advance social progress is as common as it is naïve? When fissures in the varied engines of marketing, disinformation, and production are so rapidly filled or eliminated by force? In Hakim Bey's formulation, the authoritarian system can be subjected to radical transformation only by changing the individuals who operate and create it.
The audience reaction or aesthetic shock produced by Poetic Terrorism ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror--powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dadaesque angst -- no matter whether the Poetic Terrorism is aimed at one person or many, no matter whether it is "signed" or anonymous, if it does not change someone's life (aside from the artist) it fails.14
Could the intensity Bey describes be conveyed over the Internet? Anti-authoritarian habits of mind might be brought persuasively into the sphere of the technical specialist. Artists might begin to operate in more integrated ways, less in reaction to the Faustian bargains of the market. While many artists remain relatively reluctant to share their resources and to cooperate with peers, the open source movement offers one model for a collective, network-oriented development initiative. It effectively distributes ownership, and seeks collaborators everywhere. Will 'copyleft' prevail or will intellectual property simply be coopted? Will open source software really lead toward the diffusion of authority in public cybernetic systems? There is little reason to believe that this paradigm shift alone will be a panacea, but it may offer lessons and opportunities for the arts.
To say that there is a formidable dissatisfaction that could be channeled toward a media regime that corresponds more closely with socialist or anarchist ideals, would be no exaggeration. But in all likelihood this energy will be spent and lost in limited or futile, dead-end enterprises; and so for those intent upon avoiding undue wreckage, a remarkably difficult energy reclamation is in order. Foundations have already been laid for the unseen but felt realm of demographic databasing, automated accounting, surveillance, commerce, and war technology. These, too, are the products of innovation. The same logic of extermination that has nearly eliminated Native American culture continues its work. The deadly obsession with competition demands a limit. Its various bouts,
Competition vs. History
promise to leave little in their wake. What better time to invent a new future?
© 1999 Andy Deck