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This book is a collection of disparate articles by Geert Lovink, an "independent media theorist and net critic". He is well-known among netizens as the founder of the nettime mailing lists. The book features articles about many subjects: e-mail, Wired magazine, war, cyberculture and more. But it does not fit with the presentation on the author's website: "In order to frame an agenda for a creative and radical pragmatism which leaves behind the cultural pessimism of post-modernity, leftist technophobia and dotcom delusions, Dark Fiber investigates and formulates a political economy of the Internet." In fact, this presentation of the book leads one to think that it is a long, self-contained work, with a coherent focus, whereas it is merely a collection of articles written between 1995 and 2001.
To take another quote from the author's website, which really has little to do with the book: "Dark Fiber looks into the ambivalent role cyberculture is playing in the mobilization of creative potentials on the side of both producers (artists, designers, programmers, hackers and activists) and users, tamed into the role of consumers. Crucial here are the different stages of new media culture, from its mythical, speculative stage, complete with its New Age visionaries, leading to a period of hype dominated by the neo-Darwinist business New Economy agenda, culminating into a stage of numbed 'massification,' a climate dominated by online surveillance, zero privacy, viruses and filters, information overload and a diffuse paranoia about the online Other." If you can understand that second sentence, this book is for you. Obfuscation is power!
I must admit to being confused. Reading the above text, I wonder if I have stumbled into a different book. For the one I have in my hands includes this lucid presentation: "The topics include the erosion of email, bandwidth for all, the rise and fall of dot-com mania, techno-mysticism, sustainable social networks, the fight for a public Internet time standard, the strategies of Internet activists, mailing list culture, and collaborative text filtering. Stressing the importance of intercultural collaboration, Lovink includes reports from Albania, where NGOs and artists use new media to combat the country’s poverty and isolation; from Taiwan, where the September 1999 earthquake highlighted the cultural politics of the Internet; and from Delhi, where a new media center explores free software, public access, and Hindi interfaces."
As the blurb points out, this is a hodgepodge work, a florilegium of the author's writings, and not a book that "investigates and formulates a political economy of the Internet."
Anyway, on to the texts. I'm sure Geert Lovink would agree that context is everything. The context of reading these texts in a well-designed hardcover book causes the reader to approach the texts differently than if they are on a web page. What may seem profound on the web often comes off as sophomoric on the printed page. The discursive history of the nettime mailing list reads like the story of a group of boys who started a club, then tried changing the club, and, when some of the members went off and formed their own club, got angry and argued. People make mistakes and couch them in post-modern names, such as when the nettime-free list wreaked e-mail havoc, one person called it "an exercise in electronic disturbance", a "psychological operation aiming to polarize the group". It all smells too much of academic quarrels and epistolary disagreements, and seems, to the outsider, to be nothing more than a gathering of people trying to show off.
Some of the texts are more interesting, but one can question the usefulness of collecting all these texts in book form. Who really cares about the intellectual analysis of Swatch's creation of a marketing ploy to sell watches by creating "InternetTime"? There is an interesting short piece called "Language? No problem.", where Lovink discusses the pros and cons of using English to communicate with other people around the world. But this paper has little to do with the Internet and has everything to do with communication in general. Sure, one communicates over the Internet, and the real-time aspects of Internet communication engender new ways of using language, but many new ways have appeared over the many centuries of cultural contact. It would have been interesting if Lovink had looked at pidgin and creole languages, and drawn conclusions from the similarities with what he calls Euro-English.
There's a gee-whiz attitude in some of the older pieces, redolent of Hardy Boys-type fascination with technology for its own sake. A note to the article on the nettime mailing list says that "typical European questions" of the time included such things as "Is technological development bringing us to self-destruction or to a new Renaissance? Are we experiencing the last phase of Western civilization, or the dawn of the digital era?" cannot but chuckle reading this, as though Europeans asked the "deep" questions, and the rest of Internet users (read: Americans) only stayed on the surface. In actuality, intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic, and Pacific, amused themselves with these issues, and ran around in circles, because, as it seems clear, there are no answers to these questions.
Maybe I'm being unfair, but there is a feeling in this book - as in much "Internet criticism" - that shows little more than academics or intellectuals searching for a raison d'etre. The book is full of commonplaces, that, well-dressed in nice intellectual trappings, sound pithy, yet ring hollow: "computer networks are no longer an insider's phenomenon in the hands of a few academics and programmers, as was the case until the mid 1990s." "Soon the Internet will not be new anymore. Email is becoming part of everyday life, as did television, the vacuum cleaner, and the refrigerator." "The New does not emerge. It erupts, then fades away. It always begins with brief moments of undefinedness."
I'm sure that there are many people for whom Dark Fiber is "essential" or "seminal"; people who search for the latest fad in intellectual thought. But in the end, as someone who has been there and followed much of this cultural development over the past decade, it just doesn't gel for me. If the Internet is truly to be considered as worthy of critical thought (which remains debatable), we will only be able to posit valuable ideas after watching it evolve for a generation. When children grow up with a ubiquitous Internet, then become adults, perhaps it will be time to write such a book.