Free Bitflows: Editorial
In 2004 a digital culture event was held in Vienna to examine the theories and practices for making new cultures of access viable: "how can we organize access to cultural works to match the new freedom of production?"
And the winner is: the network! Of all the overhyped concepts of pre-crash new media, the network is the only one that survived an extended encounter with reality. In fact, it not just survived, it flourished. Many of the most interesting recent projects and debates in media culture can be understood as steps towards "networking practice".
Developing such practices is far more complex a task than all instant the revolutionaries with their technical prophesies had ever imagined. Sure enough, technology – the material basis for "network practice" – does matter and we have to save open technologies from the death grip of the corporate-security complex. This fight is far from over, but the alliances around Open Source Software, the principal carriers of this battle, are growing stronger, better organized, and more self-confident. If this is reason for optimism, great. However, the technological aspects are not the whole picture. What we are seeing now is the re-creation of social networks, around the incorporation of technological ones. The essays on this site, and the entire exStream project, from which this publication draws, are a contribution to this on-going exploratory process.
What could an open, collaborative network practice, based on sharing of resources, actually look like? How do we create networks that are flexible, but also sustainable and lasting? The dangers are clear and we can see them every day. While the "flexible lifestyle" of the artist has become the center of attention as a model for combat groups and the "new workforce", the results of decades of operations research in cybernetics and complexity have not reached a wider audience. The capitalization of social growth and self-determined empowerment is seemingly not in the economic equation that drives the logic of an informational military-entertainment complex.
Like hostilities in Network Centric Warfare, where no single platform is the heart of the system, a rhizomatic control society can be structured through repressive network management, with all the access and no accountability. In order to avoid playing into the hands of those who see networks as another metaphor for downsizing, outsourcing and social exploitation we have to develop a critique of the concept of "independence" and develop contexts, in which new agendas can be set, resources pooled, and project created. Pauline van Mourik Broekman is taking up this discussion in her essay: The network practice transforms everything. Not over night, and not necessarily with predictable results, but it opens new potentials that need to be realized, with support of local cells and coalitions. Pit Schulz explores what a new "networked" radio might mean, how we can combine analog broadcasting with digital file sharing to revitalize one of the oldest electronic media. The aim is clear: To develop new platforms of experimentation, platforms that are neither forced to rely exclusively on the market or on public funding, but instead draw on the resourcefulness within a network of sound communities. Steven Kovats, in his essay, uses Marcel Duchamp's notion of the "infrathinic" (the warmth on chair after the person has left) to measure "network temperature". Can we create warmth and new forms of social interaction across time and space in cold technological networks without empathy?
But before getting all too warm and fuzzy, it's important to remember that all these experiments and discourses take place in a highly contested terrain in which powerful forces are eager to reduce sociality to buying and selling. The key battle ground is file sharing. The weapons of choice against freedom and collaboration are Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), and draconian legal sanctions that threaten to establish "network control" on a level which can only be called totalitarian. But the battle is not yet lost. The most precarious desire of technological restriction systems, that of sprawling into an all-encompassing grid of remote command, also seems to be its weakest point. Since intelligence from the "street" has frequently provided evidence of its ability to swiftly crack the codes and wiring of control devices, the only answer to this counterintelligence from below has been the creation of "waterproof" control environments of enclosure on the technical, social, cultural and legal levels. But this attempted totality of the new information feudalism appears to be affected by fissures wide enough to provide entry points for asymmetric subversion from the margins. And as a famous Microsoft study concludes, the powers that be don't stand a chance against the reality of the so called "Darknet".
Therefore it seems well worth investigating what exactly this fabled invisible parallel network is, and how its dynamics can be harnessed. Considering the fact that official economies are co-dependent on black markets in all shades of gray, it may not be too far-fetched an idea to look at subterranean urban info tunnels of "Third Man"-type economies as a base of operations for a positive change in mediated human relations. With privacy rights of corporations taking priority over any level of civil and human rights and protection, dark fiber and crypto P2P networks could exploit the privileges of business entities. If censorship by convenience and filtering and identification by consent are essential components of the databody meal plan, it could also work the other way around: obtaining anonymity by inertia. Janko Roettgers is exploring the two options of file sharing at the crossroads.
Thinking about alternative network futures requires access to a body of knowledge which is directly interwoven with a living cultural practice based on networks of exchange and dissemination. Clusters of open information cultures based on nodes of semiotic democracy, streaming the voice of the other, syndicalized anonymous safehouses and archives for the digital public sphere provide a trajectory for exploring different options in the shaping of information societies. The unofficial networks of file-exchange could provide blueprints for decentralized compensation arrangements that bypass the big gatekeepers of the content and intellectual property industries. Organizational intelligence for independent producers is primarily a social skill, but as software for encrypting e-mails has been put under restricted weapons classifications in many countries, lacking structural organization tools and search/indexing resources could turn out to be a critical gap in the empowerment of local players.