Baruch Gottlieb and I will be giving a talk about Miscommunication technologies at Berlin Atonal today.
Below is a text written by us about the series of artworks originally published in “Disrupting Business,” Edited by Tatiana Bazzichelli & Geoff Cox and published by Autonomedia – Data Browser 05.
Telekommunisten Artworks 2009-2013
Dmytri Kleiner, Baruch Gottlieb
The development of communication technologies is not merely a neutral process driven by discovery, progress and innovation, but an intensely social and political process where choices are made in ways that fundamentally influence the reproduction of the class conditions of the societies that produce these technologies. Communications technologies embody and perpetuate the social relations of their mode of production.
The Miscommunication Technologies series of artworks by Telekommunisten explore these social relations by creating technologies that don’t work as expected, or work in unexpected ways. The artworks in the series allow the embedded social relations to be critically experienced and confronted. The series employs parody, juxtaposition, exaggeration and reductio ad absurdum to bring aspects of these relations which are normally hidden from view, into the foreground.
The Miscommunication Technologies artworks illustrate some of the real world challenges faced by anyone or any group which would like to challenge the dominance of capitalist models of production. Miscommunication Technologies take a light-hearted approach to an intractable reality: capitalism is not only the system by which maximum value is extracted from social production, it is also the current global system which, in its unsatisfactory yet somewhat reliable manner, provide vital services we depend on every day. Any challenge to capitalist hegemony must be prepared to provide for the same social needs which will persist any system.
The illusions of the early Internet as a panacea platform for the emancipation of human intelligence and collaborative spirit emerged because it was financed for use-value, not exchange-value. It’s early developers were universities, NGOs, hobbyists and, prominently, the military. The contributors to the early Internet built the platform according to what could be seen as a product of a communist credo, “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”
As Richard Barbrook described in “The::Cyber.Com/munist::Manifesto” “Within the Net, people are developing the most advanced form of collective labour: work-as-gift.” Information and software spread freely across the network. This, to many people, created the impression that a new society was emerging, for instance, “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” by John Perry Barlow stated “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” Barlow’s EFF co-founder, John Gilmore claimed that “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” implying that The Net existed beyond the jurisdiction of States, or even the organisations that operate it, as it can simply “route around” those that would seek to interfere with the freedom of exchange on the network.
This might have held true to some extent during the initial stages of commercialisation of the Internet, since the first commercial ventures, “Internet Service Providers” or “ISPs” did not develop their own communications technologies, but only provided access to the public Internet, and the decentralized, open technologies that ran on it, such as email and usenet. The exchange value these ISPs were capturing was collectively created. Each ISP was independently earning income by being a part of a common platform, not owned by anybody as a whole, but composed of the mutual interconnections of the participants. Though made up of parts owned by public and private organizations, the platform as a whole functioned as a commons, a common stock of productive assets used independently by the ISPs and their users.
In parallel to the Internet, “Online Services” like CompuServ emerged from the capitalist imagination, they were financed for exchange value, by profit seeking investors, and as such did not employ a mesh topology like the Internet, but rather employed a star topology. Users could not communicate directly with each other, but only through the central servers of the operator, which could not be “routed around.” This was required by profit-oriented business models, since control of user interaction and user data is required to monetise the platform, for instance by charging fees or selling advertising.
Part of what fed the illusion of the emancipatory potential of the then-possible Internet was the fact that the platform made Capitalist-funded “Online Services” like CompuServ and AOL obsolete. This happened largely because of the explosive growth made possible by it’s distributed infrastructure, allowing the ISP industry to develop as a kind of petit-bourgeois industry of small producers. ISPs were a cottage industry of mom and pop telecoms of sorts. The design of the Internet allowed anybody with a connection to the internet, to provide a connection to others, thus the barrier of entry to becoming an ISP was relatively small, just an upstream connection, some computers, modems and telephone lines.
During the early days of the public Internet the communistic petit bourgeois ISPs prevailed over the feudalistic haute bourgeois Online Services, making it seem momentarily that the superior technical architecture of the Internet, combined with the cultures of sharing and gift economies would be able to surpass and even transcend Capital.
Both personal and commercial users migrated en masse to the internet. For instance, in a letter to their customers that is still available online the software company BASIS international, “The Big Little Software Company,” writes “By the end of 1997, BASIS plans to move completely off CompuServe (CSi) and onto the Internet. This is a logical consequence of the many changes that have taken place in the online world over the past few years.” In their letter, BASIS spells out a lot of these changes; “While our CSi presence has served the company well in the past, its pay-to-access structure is increasingly harder to justify with the Internet providing almost limitless content at a negligible incremental cost. People are moving away from CSi in significant numbers, making it a less effective platform from which to address our current and future customers. We believe that moving our existing support infrastructure from CSi to the Internet will give us better access to our customers and our customers better access to us” and goes on to explain how it will now use open platforms like email, Usenet and IRC instead of CompuServ’s proprietary and centralized applications. How ironic that now web 2.0 platforms have companies and individuals returning to centralized, proprietary systems for their support and communications. The reason for this is not because centralized platforms where superior all-along, but because they are they only kind of systems that are funded by capitalists.
While ISPs invested in bringing Internet access into households and offices worldwide, they did little to actually develop the communications platforms used on the network, these were largely developed within the gift economy of the users themselves. The ISPs were even less able to take over the provision of long-haul data transmission, dominated by international telecommunications conglomerates. Most ISPs got their start by simply connecting shelves full of consumer grade modems to consumer grade computers running free software, providing connectivity to an upstream internet provider for end-users who were using freely available communications platforms.
Thus, while the emergence of the ISPs and the rapid mainstream adoption of the Internet were spectacular, they were not able to capture enough profit to scale up and take over the more investment-heavy infrastructure of Internet provision. The end was already apparent in beginning. Well-financed telecommunications conglomerates would soon replace the mom & pop ISPs, either buying them up, or driving them out of business by providing “broadband” services which delivered internet to the home along with telephone service, leaving the remaining ISPs as just resellers, providing service over telecom managed circuits.
As Internet usage grew, technically-oriented users became the minority. The general Internet user became what Clay Shirkey eventually called “everybody”. This had a significant impact on the culture of sharing and tolerance. The first wave of “everybody” to arrive was when AOL, in an effort to remain relevant, allowed it’s users to access the Internet, this epoch has been called “The Eternal September” since then. The Jargon File, a glossary of hacker slang, describes this as “All time since September 1993. One of the seasonal rhythms of the Usenet used to be the annual September influx of clueless newbies who, lacking any sense of netiquette, made a general nuisance of themselves. This coincided with people starting college, getting their first internet accounts, and plunging in without bothering to learn what was acceptable. These relatively small drafts of newbies could be assimilated within a few months. But in September 1993, AOL users became able to post to Usenet, nearly overwhelming the old-timers’ capacity to acculturate them; to those who nostalgically recall the period before, this triggered an inexorable decline in the quality of discussions on newsgroups.”
The Jargon File, mentions “Netiquette,” a quaint term from the innocent times of net.culture, yet Netiquette was not simply a way of fitting-in, like table manners at an exclusive dinner party. The cultural context of that Internet that made acculturation necessary was its relative openness and lack of stratification.
Netiquette was required, because the network had relatively little constraints built into it, the constraints needed to be cultural for the system to work. There was much more to this culture than teaching new users how to not abuse resources or make a “general nuisance of themselves.” Netiquette was not so much about online manners, it was rather about how to share. Starting from the shared network resources, sharing was the core of the culture, which not only embraced free software and promoted free communications, but generally resented barriers to free exchange, including barriers required to protect property rights and any business models based on controlling information flow.
As dramatic as the influx of new users was to the old-timers’ net.culture, the influx of capital investment and its conflicting property interests quickly emerged as an existential threat to the basis of the culture. Net.culture required a shared internet, where the network itself and most of the information on it was held in common. Capital required control, constraints and defined property in order to earn returns on investment. Lines in the sand were drawn, the primitive communism of the pre-September Internet was over. The Eternal September began, and along with it, the stratification of the internet began.
Rather than embracing the free, open, platforms where net.culture was born, like Usenet, EMail, IRC, etc, Capital embraced the Web. Not as the interlinked, hypermedia, world-wide-distributed publishing platform it was intended to be, but as a client-server private communications platform where users’ interactions were mediated by the platforms’ operators. The flowering of “Web 2.0” was Capital’s re-engineering of the web into an internet accessible version of the online services they were building all along, such as the very platforms whose mass user bases where the influx that started the Eternal September. CompuServ and AOL most notable among them.
The gift-economy model of software development that developed platforms like email and usenet was unable to compete with a quickly growing Venture Capital start-up scene pushing Web 2.0 platforms. Like the profit-oriented Online Services before them, these start-ups were also compelled by the the profit motives of their investors to implement a centralised topology, a star topology, because once again, the central control of user data and interaction was required to monetise the platforms. We have moved from a world CompuServ and AOL to a world of Amazon and Facebook. Scratch off the Facebook logo and you’ll find the CompuServ logo underneath.
The OCTO P7C-1 prototype premiered at transmediale 2013 was produced by Jeff Mann, Jonas Frankki, Diani Barreto, Baruch Gottlieb and Dmytri Kleiner with raumlaborberlin. OOCTO exemplified this problematic. OCTO, the fictional venture capitalist start-up promised to build the next dimension of the Internet, the physical dimension of communication through a pervasive pneumatic tube network. The utopian rhetoric of the OCTO boosters is exuberantly cliché, promising all manner of human empowerment and positive transformation, and conveniently leaving behind in the shadow of bold promises the fact that this technology will be completely centralised and completely transfused with invasive security and monitoring technologies.
OCTO P7C-1 presented the situation on several parallel levels. First, the actual working prototype, the P7C-1 allowed visitors to send capsules around the entire Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The P7C-1 stations were integrated everywhere at transmediale and used by staff and visitors alike. Use of the system was purposefully complicated, every capsule having to be sent through a central station in coordination and at the mercy of the operators positioned there. P7C-1’s cumbersome, labour-intensive and privacy-agnostic factuality flew in the face of the transcendent promises unflaggingly issued from the fictional directorship of the fictional OCTO company. The constant work of managing the central station, end-stations and tube network is labour theatre, unlike the internet where the physical labour is hidden, the labour in OCTO P7C-1 is presented as a central theatrical aspect of the work. OCTO the company, provided the second layer, the social fiction, constantly driving home the lesson that there is a price for the convenience of every new technological utopia under capitalism, and the price will be extracted from those who are promised to benefit.
We have moved from administering our own email to using the centralized email services of giant entities like Google and Yahoo, which, as part of their mere functioning, parse and analyse private contents. Massive data sets have proven as useful for optimising AI applications such as automatic translation as any improvement from the (academic) information science community. Access to these storehouses of real-time contextual semantic data is the nec plus ultra of contemporary web profit models.
The revolutionary Internet that inspired Barbrook, Barlow, Gilmore and many others has become a dystopia, a platform whose capabilities and pervasiveness of surveillance and behavioural conditioning and influence surpass the wildest dreams of the tyrants and technocrats of previous eras. As we will see again and again, despite claims that culture and economy has gone ‘immaterial’, the rules of access to the physical technology of the internet conditions the forms of services which are eventually at the disposal of users.
Whereas OCTO is the archetypal network startup with a unabashed agenda of market sector conquest, Thimbl appears as the light at the end of the long dark tunnel of centralised hegemonic corporate dominance of the Internet. Developed by Dmytri Kleiner, Jonas Frankki, Rico Weise and Mike Pearce with contributions from a small community that developed around it, including Anthony Shull, Silja Neilson, Mark Carter and Fernando Guillen ,Thimbl is made out to be a distributed, peer-to-peer alternative to microblogging platforms such as Twitter. Thimbl appears as an analogue of projects like Diaspora, also launched in 2010 like Thimbl, Diaspora is a purely altruistic project with no profit motive and only the idealism of freedom of information.
The tragedy of projects like Diaspora is that they are not really a viable replacements for capital-funded projects like Facebook, for economic and political reasons, not technical reasons. Therein lies the message of Thimbl. Anyone who has some understanding of the elementary server architecture of the Internet can use Thimbl, because it is based on a protocol originally developed in the 1970’s called Finger which allowed users to post public “project” and “plan” messages akin to status updates. The free-access, non-commercial functionality of finger harkens back to the period when the Internet was still being developed for use value. By retrieving finger, Thimbl indicates how users today are allowing corporations to benefit from the value of their social interactions for services which, in principle, could be used freely and for free. Thimbl shows that all that is necessary to provide a microblogging experience like Twitter is available for free and built in to the Internet right now, but, precisely because they are freely available, technologies based on protocols like finger will never be developed to the extent that they offer the satisfactory user experience of competitive commercial platforms.
Unlike the highly centralized OCTO, capital will never fund a project like Thimbl because it will not generate sufficient ROI. Thimbl is an economic fiction or social fiction. Making it work is not the greatest challenge, making it financially viable is. Thimbl does not provide investors with the ability to control it’s users or their data, and as Thimbl’s Manifesto states “This control is required by the logic of Capitalist finance in order to capture value. Without such control profit-seeking investors do not provide funds.”
For Thimbl, or any other platform with a similar vision, to become a real alternative to the capitalist financed platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we need more than running code, even more than a small, perhaps dedicated, user base. To get beyond this and actually break the monopolizing grip of centralized social media we need to match their productive capacities. We need financing on a similar scale. so that the development, marketing, and operations budgets are comparable and sufficient to compete. Just like science fiction becomes reality when science transcends the limitations that existed when the fiction was imagined, for economic fiction like Thimbl to become reality society will need to transcend the political and economic limitations that we currently face. We can write code, we can write texts, we can create artworks, but as a small network of artists and hackers, we can’t change the economic conditions we work in by ourselves.
Free, distributed platforms are very practically suited to the work of radical communities, both symbolically as a matter of solidarity, and also practically, since support for privacy and cryptography is often desirable. These platforms should, in a meritocratic economy of technological product, become prevalent, but instead they are marginalized by the current ‘owners’ of the Internet. Free, distributed platforms cannot provide the same ease-of-use, the so-called user-experience (UX) provided by capitalist platforms because they simply lack the work-time to generate such quality. The result is that radical programmers pride themselves on the superiority of the software and bemoaning the state of things which prevents that such software become prevalent. Radical programmers are motivated to campaign on the level of code for a freer, anarchist, egalitarian Internet, but they are not motivated to confront the political and economic realities which prohibit the social adoption of these technologies. This generates much frustration and defensiveness, rather than the commitment to dedicate some small quanta of their formidable imaginations and intelligences to the problem of ownership.
Miscommunication Technologies show-up the improvisatory economic structures of network-optimism in the way they inevitably ‘fail’ to deliver the seamless networked experience they provocatively advertise. The schism between the promise of utopia and the reality of a system which requires much spontaneous effort on the part of users even to provide a modicum of functionality, playfully points to the immense work still needed to produce conditions which will support a radically different model of industrial communications as it prioritizes the generation and cultivation of direct interpersonal engagement between a community of users.
General concern regarding the censorship and surveillance on commercial online platforms is growing, and these concerns are opportunities to to introduce political topics by arguing that these features are not unintended side-effects of these platforms, but central to their business models, and that platforms that do not surveille or control can not and will not be financed by capital, but only by collective or public undertaking as an expression of priorities which diverge from capitalism. Once this becomes clearer, concern over privacy settings on Facebook can be directed towards capitalism itself, instead of the idiosyncrasies of that platform or it’s founders.
Privacy and surveillance, at the same time, become wedge issues to de-legitimize alternative networks and services for the general public. Under the banner of security and ‘quality’, corporations have lobbied governments to favour centralized ‘unfree’ network applications built on the still free but ever fading-from-view Internet. We have seen often enough how products like Bitcoin can be impugned to ‘enable elicit activity’, cast as disreputable, until completely controlled and regulated by capital-concerned governments. Without acknowledging the systemic necessity, under the capitalist financing regime, of a centralized Internet, citizens’ legitimate concerns about corporate encroachment into private and personal spheres is co-opted to generate unfavorable opinions about technologies which could help disrupt the dominance of capitalist priorities of control.
It is worthwhile to re-emphasize that the Internet itself is not immaterial. The Internet is only accessible through hardware which needs to be built according to unfree and often unfair industrial production rules. The industrial production of electronics is a quintessentially capital-intensive undertaking requiring global flows of materials, which, under capitalism take place in extreme conditions of competition and extraction of labour value. Any challenge to how the Internet is run, or what it is available to be used for must also challenge how it is produced and reproduced.
iMine, an experimental art-app/game produced by Baruch Gottlieb in 2011 with Horacio González Diéguez and Cocomoya, prior to Baruch’s work with Telekommunisten, is now integrated into the Miscommunication Technologies series. iMine is a game that can be played on a smartphone building the reality of labour exploitation in the mining industries needed to produce the minerals required to make the device being used to play the game into the experience of playing the game. iMine does not try to make the gameplay enjoyable or directly educational but seeks to create an experience of bleakness and drudgery, true to that of the mine workers, not to entertain the user with the story of the mining, but evoke the experience of the miner. At the heating heart of the emancipatory digital device, are highly hierarchic systems of production and control. iMine is dismalware.
The gameplay is designed from the start to be stripped down to the mere basics Someone who wants to play first creates a new miner giving it a unique name and a country. After this simple registration the only thing left to do is repeatedly thrust the phone as if it were a shovel into the ground. The website keeps track of the global iMining action going on at any particular time, and also features an extensive resource section with information on mining and the political and economic enjeu in global supply chain for minerals necessary in portable computing device production. After having been developed and premiered at LABoral,
Miscommunication Technologies thus indicates that there can be no uniquely technological fix. Colonial wars and security states, corporate rule and centralization will persist despite the best intentions of emancipatory technologists, and worse, the best and most innovative technologies are not only appropriated to perpetuate capital but to this end they are incomparably better funded than had been the visionary projects of their emancipatory inventors. The technologies which become dominant, become dominant in the form dictated by the prevailing conditions of capitalist production under which we labour today.
The free, distributed platforms, that can not be controlled or censored, can not exist on any large scale under capitalism. Not for technical reasons, in fact the technology that enables such interaction is in many cases well-described and readily available, but for social and political reasons. The productive capacity that is required to build and support them will not be provided by Capital, thus so long as Capital is the dominant mode of production, it will produce platforms that reproduce itself, thus platforms than enable the accumulation of wealth by engineering control and extraction into communications systems.
R15N, originally developed as Jessycom by Dmytri Kleiner during a residency at the Israeli Center for Digital Art, was premiered as R15N in collaboration with Jonas Frankki, Jeff Mann, Baruch Gottlieb, Rico Weise and Mike Pearce at transmediale 2011. R15N is a project which pushes to absurdity the emancipatory rhetoric of mobile networked computing. Events like the antiglobalization protests in Copenhagen or the political upheaval often referred to as ‘arab spring’ generate much enthusiastic hyperbole about how new realtime networks employing mobile devices can become an unstoppable democratising force. R15N points to the economic predilections built into the provision of network connectivity may work against such emancipatory agendas.
R15N retrieves an obsolete form of social networking, the ‘telephone tree’ and dresses it up as the lastest thing in robust circumventionist networking. Perfect for planning a flash mob, R15N easily becomes a nuisance as phone calls multiply rendering the commitment one made to one’s community by joining the network a near-constant obligation to participate.
Whereas iMine proposes that critical games or critical media can only do so much to challenge the economic exigencies underlying an unacceptable status quo, and that the materiality (itself) of networked utopia is the key to understanding its injustices, R15N suggests that circumventionism will not fundamentally challenge intolerable social conditions without the concurrent care and effort being dedicated to actually building up strong communities which have committed to working together toward transforming society, as users of R15N are constantly reminded, the system depends on your competence and diligence.
Miscommunication Technologies are artworks with a principal purpose, that of engaging people in provocative networked experiences in which they inadvertently but necessarily confront the unadorned material and economic conditions under which such experiences are made possible.