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Mute in Conversation with Nettime (Pit Schultz) (Digital Publishing Feature)

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 January 1997

Pauline van Mourik Broekman Could you tell me something about how nettime was started, and how it has developed since then?

Pit Schultz: nettime started as a 3-day-meeting in a small theatre in Venice during the Biennale 95. A meeting of Media-activists, theoreticians, artists, journalists from different European countries. (Heath Bunting, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarty, Vuk Cosic, David Garcia, Nils Roeller, Tomasso Tozzi, Paul Garrin, and many more.) We developed the main lines of a Net-critique along the topics of virtual urbanism, globalisation/tribalisation, the life metaphor. Also, it became obvious that it was necessary to define a different cultural (net)politics than the one Wired Magazine represented in Europe. It was a private and intensive event, and in a way, it defined the 'style' that we critique and discuss issues on nettime. Nettime is somehow modelled on the table of the meeting, it was covered with texts, magazines, books, whatever we had to offer the group. It was the start of our 'gift economy' with exchanges of information. Today the list has nearly 300 subscribers, it's growing constantly with around 10 subscribers a week. We do no PR and the list is semiclosed, which means new subscriptions must be approved.

PvMB: Were you intensely involved with computers?

PS: My first computer was an Atari2600 TV-game, then a ZX81, C64, Amiga1000, I switched to Mac when I began with DTP in the Botschaft group after '90, used Dos/Linux for Internet, and ended up with a DX66 under Win95, mainly to run Eudora, in an Intranet. So these machines document certain phases in my life, but they don't determine them. I also studied computer science for a couple of years, but it was not what I expected, which was a more conceptual approach that reflected the development of software on a much broader, maybe cultural, level.

PvMB: ...and net culture

PS: I was involved with The Thing bbs network from 92-94, the high time of ascii and text based internet like MUDs and MOOs, before the Web. At the same time I was working with the group Botschaft. There were also some exhibitions of low media art, a communication performance in the TV tower in Berlin, meetings, long term projects in the public sphere like an installation with Daniel Pflumm in a subway tunnel, a collaboration with the group 'handshake' which later became Internationale Stadt, or Chaos Computer Club which Botschaft shared office space with. After a Bilwet event we organised, I started to work with Geert Lovink, which was a truly new phase of work.

PvMB: ...as an artist

PS: Yes and no. I got a stipendium and did exhibitions, but always had problems accepting art as a 'closed system', and I have to emphasise here that nettime is a group project, it is not a 'piece of individual art,' but a medium formed by a collective subjectivity, a sum of individuals. I'm moderating it and it has its aesthetic aspects. But you don't have to call me an artist for this.

PvMB: ...before you started the list and how do you think that has affected how nettime was set up?

PS: Well, you can call it a continuation of my art practise. But, it functions without naming it art. In '94 I tried to begin with projects on the Web, especially the Orgasmotron Project (a database of recorded brain waves of human Orgasms) which reflected the early euphoric times of 'first contact.' With Botschaft e.V. in 93-'4, we did the Museum fuer Zukunft, a group project and database of future scenarios, ideas, and views, but during these projects it became clear that I needed a deeper understanding of the collaborative, theoretical, and discursive aspects of cyberspace to continue. During this time I also gave up doing installations in defined art spaces. Generally, after a euphoric entry phase I got extremely bored and disappointed with what was and is happening in the art field. My main interest remains what Andreas Broeckman calls 'machinic aesthetics', a field between the social, political, and cultural economy of the so called 'new media'. So I was happy to meet Geert, and through Venice and a list of other meetings, a group of people with shared interests that we're trying to bring together on the nettime list.

PvMB: It seems that nettime has gravitated more towards net-political and -philosophical discussion than that directly to do with 'art'. What role do you (and Geert Lovink?), as (a) moderator(s), have with regard to that?

PS: Art today, especially media art, is a problematic field. When I listen to music, it may happen that I don't like it, but it comes through the radio. That's how art appears to me. You can switch it off, but there is still a lot of music around. So much about art. With the moderation: it is also a contradictory role. The less the moderator appears the better the channel flows. It is, of course, this power-through-absence thing, but we hope that we handle it carefully and in a responsible way, with the continuous group process in mind. Power flows through networks, and you cannot switch it off. From different sides, Geert and I have an interest in working with the dynamic of the aesthetic contra the political field. There are many fault lines and frontiers. One of them seems to become the art system which still has some kind of Alleinherrschaftsanspruch in the symbolic cultural field. This changes through new media and even if new media will not make the term 'Art' obsolete, there is something about the paradox between media and art or media art that I find deeply problematic. Both have components of totalatarian systems of representation. There is the chance that new media creates channels to redirect the flow of power. That's what nettime is made for. An experimental place for (re)mixes, something I missed for a very long time. Never perfect and always 'in becoming,' but not explicit, not descriptive but performative, and pragmatic.

Both Geert and I have our own reasons to distance ourselves from today's 'art discourse'. You can name nettime a political project in terms of the real effects we try to trigger, in terms of conflicting debates reflecting and criticising economic and social implications of the 'digital revolution'. It is a philosophical channel in terms of describing a certain 'condition', while accessing and applying the traditional knowledge including the 'postmodern' stuff. It is an aesthetic process in many aspects, while developing a collaborative writing space, experimenting with modes and styles of 'computer mediated communication'. Finally, we have the luxury of silence and don't advertise, so we don't need big investments into labels and surface, it gets spread by word of mouth, and the footer 'cultural politics of the nets' can mean many things. It's about clouds. There is this 'field of virtuality or potentiality,' multiple contexts and personas, interests and intensities which, like the social aspect, the time aspect, the knowledge and news aspect, make nettime something which modulates a flow of heterogeneous subjective objects, something with an existential aesthetic of living with nettime, (including the group, events, projects which grow here) a collective and singular info-environment which exists without the need to be named art.

PvMB: At the discussion at DEAF96, I think you described nettime as a 'dirty' ascii channel; how 'dirty' or unmoderated is it?

PS: Dirtyness is a concept here, especially for the digital realm, which produces its own clean dirtyness, take the sound of digital distortion of a CD compared to analogue distortion of Vinyl. Take all kinds of digital effects imitating the analogue dirtyness, which means in the end, a higher resolution, a recursive, deeper, infinite structure. I used the concept because of its many aspects. It means here to affirm the noise aspect, but only to generate a more complex pattern out of it. It does not mean 'anything goes', or a self-sufficient ethic of productivity. It is slackerish in a way, slows down, speeds up, doesn't care at certain places, just to come back to the ones which are tactically more effective.... there is a whole empirical science behind it, how to bring the nettime ship through dark waters... how to compress and expand, how to follow the lines of noise/pattern instead of absence/presence...

(In fact I pushed the big red button of the moderator mode only once, after a period of technical errors and a following unfocused dialogue.) The phenomenon is, and I think this is not such a rare thing, that a group of people, in a repetitive, communicative environment, begin to filter a field of possible 'communication acts' in a certain way, quasi machinic. You don't have to be professional or especially skilled in the beginning. The production of 'information' along the borderline of noise means to constantly refine a social context, maybe an artificial one, what some call immanent, I mean with rules which are self-evident, and are interdependent in a dynamic way. The list-software sends a kind of basic netiquette to the new users but this affects only some formal factors. One is that we decided to avoid dialogues, without forbidding them. Nettime is not a list of dialogues of quote and requote, but more of a discursive flow of text, of different types, differentialising, contextualising each other. On the net it is called 'collaborative filtering' or earlier, it was 'social filtering'.

Dirtyness means here many things, first of all the absence of purity, you always have mixtures, 'agencements' ... but this becomes too trivially 'postmodern'. The constant commentary, forming a socially defined body of knowledge, and of course, a field where power is generated out of undifferentiated forces, which includes the position of the moderators, or other very active participants, for defining where the scope of the flow tends to go. But actually, anyone can post whatever she likes. This risk, which often leads to a situation of overflow and re-orientation, is also the productive freedom of nettime. Another is the limited set of signs, like the Euro-English or net-pigeon, using English as a non-native speaker or the reduced character set of ascii, or the minimal features of the perl-scripts which run the mailinglist. Finally, for the authors, there is always a multiple aspect of why to write, and for the readers, why to read nettime. You definitely have to filter, I guess nobody, including me, reads every mail from start to finish. The sender has the chance to actively select texts she finds on the net and forward them. The author can pre- or republish texts, send pre-versions, test certain ideas, or sample others. On the material side, there are the Printouts of ZKP, readers which come out in small numbers during conferences. The process of inscription combined with a filtering process functions a bit like a news-ticker, if you want to find a comparison in the publishing world.

PvMB: Two other pertinent issues that came up at the DEAF discussion were those to do with size and finance. If online journals or lists are akin to creators of community, for example, where discussion can be catalytic due to the small size of the group and many of the contributors also knowing each other 'in real life', does their effectivity decrease beyond a certain size (I think Geert mentioned a couple of hundred). Although nettime is still a 'closed' mailing list, its subscriber base has grown; have you adapted your methodology?

As you can see, nettime is still going well. It seems there is a self-regulation process on the side of the contributors. There is the growth, which is around 10 new subscribers per week, mostly on a word of mouth basis, which leads to a certain social consistency. Then, in the way texts get selected/produced and find their way to the list. The 'group' is circumscribing a network of real life relationships, a network of shared interests, and a network of contextualising documents. This happens in relation to the 'outside', to the 'wideness' of the net, and to the 'deepness' of the local places where people work and live. Every document represents a vector through time in a social context, a discursive environment with many levels of reference, but a relatively concrete and simple surface: ascii-text. The complexity and aesthetics which come out of the simple practical rules of a mailinglist are complex and dynamic enough to not feel the urge to experiment with multithread, hypertextual, multimedia environments, even if we think about certain extensions you find in common with infranet or groupware solutions in the corporate world. It says: never touch a running system. I think the next level will evolve through a certain economic pressure, certain cases where texts reappear somewhere without permission, or other cases where the unwritten norms are subverted by other 'content machines' running on other principles, but sharing similar fields of issues. There is a need to use the chance and experiment with new horizontal networks of producers, to respect the collaborative editorial work of a user community and most of all, to think about financial models in terms of a sustainable quality of discussion, which includes the 'currency' of trust and credibility.

PvMB: And then regarding finance. This obviously has enormous effects on how things can run. Nettime is a 'no budget' operation; what are the advantages and disadvantages of this and how do you manage to keep going?

PS: First I have to say that your question already has certain implications. It may seem natural to put anything you do into an economic model and ask, what do I get for it? what do I pay for it? But it cannot even be said that such an exchange economy runs effectively with money. There is clearly a drive to profit from new media, and, of course, money must be there, for a basic funding, but the goal of nettime is not financial profit. One easily comes to this point with a defensive position, or a dogmatic one, fighting against the all too present, not to say, totalitarian system of a world wide integrated capitalism. Even after Marx, there are social fights, and especially within the new media, you have to face, like in the art world, certain problems, which often mean, make money fast, but bad work; work, but don't get good money. There is a certain kind of luxury today, which is somehow overcoded by 'slackerdom' which is contrary to the work ethic of the yuppie or the political activist. It is a pragmatic level, we do not have to talk about just economics, but we have to develop a working model, a constant fight with risks of exploitation, burn-out, sell-out.

Finally we would have to change nettime from its microeconomical, very basic structure if we would force its commercialisation. To make it clear, especially for mailinglists, but also many other sites with hi content, that it is not at all clear how to finance them for the long term. The time of the hype might be over soon, and then you have to face a shake out of centralisation that we already know from the history of radio and TV. On the other hand, I do not believe in the concept of autonomy. It leads to a sad double life, it might be that you live by state grants, or that you have to do a stupid job during the day. Between, there are many shades of grey, and among them is the possibility of alternative online economies which may once reintroduce less-alienated semiotics into the circulation of capitalism.

PvMB: You've talked about the importance of editors being sensitive to the exchange economies of the nets; these many economies intertwine, they are not separate are they? Highly commercial and competitive ones share technologies, content and 'participants' (for want of a better word) with ones that are more clearly like the potlach economy you refer to. In practice, what has your experience been of keeping nettime independent within this situation?

PS: These economies intertwine, but not without friction. From the view of the poor, there is the need to disrespect certain economic barriers, for example, licenses and copyright. That's what is happening in many Eastern countries. The new markets are not functioning like they promised to, at least not for all. There are still many chances to use new technology as a tool to reach more independence, but it also gets used in the other way, for a huge 'Darwinist' shakeout. And as one can see with Microsoft, it is not at all the best who survive. So I strongly resist any logic of preaffirming the situation. Potlatch is only a circumscription of a kind of exchange economy which is pretty common, as soon as you have the privilege to do so. I am sure that we will face models which are based on a certain local exclusion of money economy. Any family, community, or friendship is based on such models. Finally, you need the friction, the potential of mixed economies, for a vivid and creative market, at least from what I understand about markets.

PvMB: This links with one of the ongoing discussions on nettime, the one to do with libertarianism or neoliberalism and social justice. It has, over time, involved posting extensive 'dialogues' on the role of Wired, the demonisation of the State and been presented as an attempt to start generating a productive, European contribution to the development of ideas on techno-cultural political organisation for the future. Is this right and how do you feel it is going?

PS: You can describe it like that. But I don't like to make predictions here. One thing nettime does is critique, this means it reflects and constructs the present. Of course there are strategies, and part of a strategy is that one should not talk too much about it. The important task is not to give up against the homogenising, centralising, and alienating networks of a global integrated capitalism, to use these very ethical-political techniques as 'cultural' ones. To push against what is forced on us as 'economic factors' in favour of a necessary quality.

contact: <pit@contrib.de>, <geert@xs4all.nl>reading: news://alt.nettime or news://news.thing.at/alt.nettime

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT metamute.com>

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh
Storify: 

Part of the Radical Net Cultures seminar, Leuphana University by Clemens Apprich and Simon Worthington, assisted by Nicolas Stille. 2012-13