World-InfoCon 2002, Amsterdam
A public conference in the frame of World-Information.Org 2002, Amsterdam
The World-InfoCon 2002 conference "The Network Society of Control" was a two-day interdisciplinary meeting and conference held at De Balie, Centre for Culture and Politics in Amsterdam, one of the Amsterdam partner organisations for World-Infoirmation.Org, Amsterdam 2002.
The idea of the conference was to investigate two key areas of infopolitics: Surveillance and security in the digital domain, and public relation management as two sides of information control, and secondly the intensifying debate about intellectual property rights and alternative models for the current highly restrictive legal frameworks for intellectual property rights management. The choice for these themes was guided by a growing awareness that information control is a vital meeting point of economic, political and cultural interests. The conference was intended to look at this issue not only from a political/economic point of view, but also to take the cultural dimension of these processes very seriously. Culture relies on the availability of information and the exchange of ideas and opinions. The space of free exchange of information, ideas and other immaterial goods is increasingly reduced, after the early start of the internet and net.culture seemed to promise an exponential growth in the availability of information and the possibilities for information exchange. Cultural development and innovation is stifled by all too tight restrictions on information exchange. This point is also recognised in the world of information law, and initiatives such as the Creative Commons a new legal project and licensing system put forward by some of the brightest minds in US information law who attempt to address this issue in a constructive manner. We briefly describe here the background of our discussion and some of the main outcomes.
In advance of the conference a reader was compiled with materials mainly distributed via the internet, which documents the context of the conference in greater detail, contains interviews with relevant thinkers and activists, and concludes with a section on the World-Information.Org project itself and the projects produced by artists in the frame of the 2002 Amsterdam edition of World-Information.Org.
In 2000 De Balie organised a conference of similar scale and format devoted to a critique of the new economy called Tulipomania DotCom. At that time, June 2000, the new economy and dotcom craze were at their height in Europe and The Netherlands, but had already crashed in the US. What we witnessed in the two years that followed was the complete and total demise of the new economy and large parts of the new media industry. The benefits of the dotcom hype went to the financial speculators who left the digital pyramid game at the right moment, whilst their willing accomplices were left with a severe dotcom hang-over. The idea of a bristling internet- and new media economy, let alone the premise of a "new" economic logic has been dissolved. New media as a business sector has become the object of disdain and pessimism. No longer is the ICT sector seen as the motor of innovation and economic renewal.
Meanwhile, despite the pervasive dotcom nihilism, the internet has been a huge success as a social and cultural phenomenon. Well above 500 million people use this new communications medium on a daily basis, and especially e-mail has transformed the economics of international communication, fostering countless transnational connections between a multitude of private, personal, social and public initiatives. But despite the fact that the economic take-over seems to have failed in the on-line world, whilst the social and cultural sphere are thriving, is no reason for celebration of the latter: First of all the social and cultural actors were relegated to the side-lines when the commercial violence unleashed itself on the networks. Later on they were equally absent in the demise of the commercial players on-line. At best they were helpless spectators, at worst they were part of the vast army of willing accomplice.
More worrying, however, is the fact that after the demise of the new economy darker forces have taken control of the dominant net.agenda: Security and control have become the buzz words of the main-stream discourse about the internet. At first it focused on the concept of "unwarranted content". Post 9/11 it turned into an at times hysterical debate on security demands vis-à-vis the perceived threat of international terrorism. In the drive for total information control that followed from this security anxiety even more vital issues than the balance between security and privacy are in danger of dropping out of sight: Silently the old economy, and in this case in particular the media and information giants have absorbed what was left of the "new" economy. New integrated constellations of media production and distribution have emerged, of which the AOL/TimeWarner case has only been the most visible. They generate dubious information monopolies that appear in stark contrast with the widely celebrated open ended and exchange based character of the internet.
New legislation for intellectual products in the digital domain all push for the protection of vested interests. The interests of public accessibility of information products, one of the main strong points of digital networking technology, are severely harmed by the narrow interpretation of Intellectual Property according to various representatives of public institutions such as libraries and public information centres, and more predictably by the advocates of copyleft and open content. These critics stress the necessity of an open information and knowledge space as a catalyst for development and as a means of bridging the digital divides that grow within and between our societies. Interestingly similar initiatives have been launched from the side of information law stating that free use of information materials, within certain limits is a prerequisite for innovation.
In a number of converging debates the figure of the commons has emerged as a central thread; The Creative Commons, the information commons and the overarching idea of a digital commons. Taking the analogy of common land for the poor to cultivate, the discussion asserts an open and participatory knowledge and information space in which knowledge becomes a resource for the public domain, rather than a proprietary asset. There are complicated questions here about the viability and the economics of a digital commons. Some of the contradictory questions are explored in the texts gathered in this reader and during the conference for which it is produced. Can we dispense with the model of commodification at all to produce the knowledge that needs to enter the public domain? Can the digital commons help to bridge the digital divide? Is the idea of open networks about to be dissolved in the face of the current narratives of the war on terror? Can the digital commons ever become sustainable? Is there any political will to turn it into a reality? Is institutional politics needed at all, can it contribute? For us as organisers the main question put forward was how to build the digital commons?
The conference produced a high level of analytic debate from a variety of disciplinary viewpoints. From the start the conference was conceived as small-scale, but high-level international working conference. The conference should first of all be regarded as an endeavour to map the new terrain of information politics in a period following the demise of utopian claims of cyberculture in the nineties and the ideology of the new economy that was built on many of these claims at the turn of the millennium, and more importantly in the middle of a period of widespread cynicism about information and network technology and its significance for social, economic and cultural processes in society.
Especially the first day of the conference was an exercise in mapping new domains of power by tracking recent trends in networked surveillance and technologically enhanced social control systems, leading from the more technologically determined forms of information control to the refinement of p.r. technologies and public opinion management strategies. Cultural critic and writer Brian Holmes most literally illustrated the practice of mapping new control systems by discussing a serious of projects he has been involved with together with the French art group Bureau d'Etudes, who are involved in an extensive project series producing maps of European control and policing systems executed as large scale newspapers, on-line maps and installations and wall-paintings, all of which are distributed via cultural festivals, magazines, and internet projects.
In the afternoon session of the first day, Sheldon Rampton and Eveline Lubbers made a critical analysis of the communication strategies of large companies and government agencies aimed at positioning a very specific image of their actions and policies not always in balance with their actual policies. They showed how civic-interest groups, concerned about possible effects of these policies held outside of public scrutiny with sophisticated communication strategies, can work around the p.r. front to make companies and government agencies accountable to the wider public. Eveline Lubbers revealed how the p.r.-related spendings of mayor industrial companies on communicating these companies' efforts on sustainable production methods, in 2001 exceeded the actual spending on the creation of more sustainable production methods, thus indicating the scope of the these problem civic interest groups are facing.
The second day was first of all a critical examination of the strategies of the open source/open content movement that advocates alternatives for the mentioned restrictive regulation on intellectual property rights, especially as they have been developed for the digital domain. Darius Cuplinkas from the Open Society Institute in Budapest showed a very successful alternative publication system of scientific and academic papers that made these findings publicly accessible and created a viable network for academic exchange, independent of mayor academic publishers. The reasoning here is that this knowledge is created with public means (academic funding) and thus should be available in the public domain and not closed of as a commercially exploited information asset.
Steve Cisler contributed insights from the world of public libraries in the US, while Thorsten Schilling of the Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung showed a series of projects of his organisation, emphasising that there is still a very strong public domain, at least in Europe, which should be mobilised more decidedly for the digital domain. Felix Stalder discussed examples of initiatives that have been created outside of formal institutional frameworks, such as the Open Flows organisation (Open publishing systems) or the mailing list nettime on net-criticism and internet-culture.
This second day was in short devoted to a comparison of models of how a digital public domain, or a digital commons, could be built. We missed the presence of a representative of the Creative Commons project a new set of licensing systems developed by information law specialists in the US headed by professor Lawrence Lessig, intended to offer more flexible arrangements to manage intellectual property rights. Their case is to go back to the original purpose of copyright law to safeguard intellectual production by offering authors some mechanisms of protecting their work, while ensuring sufficient possibilities for the exchange and re-use and modification of existing ideas, so as not to stifle innovation.
Most speakers concluded that the restrictive frameworks for intellectual property rights implemented recently by the US (DMCA) and in a new DG XIII directive by the EU, will not be able to withstand the pressures for a more free exchange of intellectual products exerted by the convergence of technological development (deployment of broadband internet most notably) and wide-spread consumer demands. The right to protection of intellectual products is also not understood as self-evident in many non western cultures, and so Arun Mehta concluded that only an act of civil disobedience, mimicked by millions around the net would be able to enforce a change in these policies, and was in fact an inevitability.
The absence of a representative of the Creative Commons (because of problems with the date and the official launch in the US of their new licensing systems) precluded a direct comparison of the various alternative models proposed with the licensing systems introduced by the Creative Commons group. As the Creative Commons licensing system is currently the most promising alternative to DMCA-like regulation, this could only be dealt with in a cursory manner, and remains a topic for a next debate.