Mute in Conversation with Telepolis (Armin Medosch) (Digital Publishing Feature)

By Pauline van Mourik Broekman, 10 January 1997

Could you tell me a bit about how Telepolis started and how it has developed since?

In 95 an exhibition and conference called 'Telepolis' was held in Luxemburg, which was the European cultural capital then. The main funding came from the Goethe-Institute, which is the German equivalent of the British Council. The core group who developed the concept consisted of Stefan Iglhaut, Florian Roetzer and myself, the organisational body was the Medienlabor Munich. Juergen Fey, a correspondent of Heise Verlag, attended this event and we started discussing an online-journal. Verlag Heinz Heise publishes some major German print magazines about computers, like ct (all computer platforms) and ix (for UNIX/Linux Users). It turned out that 'Heise' was thinking about doing something more cross-cultural but had not yet set up a real plan or contacted potential writers/editors. So our experiences with net-culture came in handy and the discussion process started, what to do and how. First we thought that Heise would just be a sponsor, but then to our surprise the company said it would either really do it or not at all. So a new editorial board was founded and Florian Roetzer and I became the editors of the online journal Telepolis, whereas Stefan Iglhaut went to become a co-ordinator for the World EXPO 2000 in Hannover. We started working in February 96 and went online on the 15th of March.

What functions do the different sections on the site have?

When we did "Telepolis' - the exhibition we relied heavily on the city metaphor. After the event we felt slightly discontented with it, not only because it was then already overly used (abused) by commercial projects but also because we thought we should find other metaphors which suited the non-geographical space of networks better .

So we established five sections, 'terminal', 'container', 'salon', 'pop~Tarts' and 'infoscope'. The idea was that the sections should not be too narrow minded like in traditional media where you have 'politics', 'science', 'art' etc. Sometimes even we don't know exactly if an article should be part of 'terminal' or 'salon' for example. In our opinion this is not a disadvantage, since in real life also you often cannot say if, for example, a cultural event is merely 'cultural' or more intrinsically 'political'. Roughly you can translate the sections as follows:

Terminal - the arrival point for users; cross-connection to other sections; fast moving things, net-news, politics, conference reports Container - relationships between networks and real life; cultural implications of technology, not so much internet related but in a more general sense; cyborgs, memes, theory of attention, neurophysiology etc.; in a container you can throw everythingSalon - art and culture, electronic music, film, net art projects, online writing projectspop~Tarts - this section was invented by Kathy Rae Huffman and Margarethe Jahrmann; focus on women and technology, but not a women's section in the traditional senseinfoscope - technical info and service area

In addition to these five sections which get updated as often as possible (though not following any regular scheme) we have a main thematic area. This main thematic area is changed every two or three months. It's a space for longer and more theoretical texts. Essays and even hardcore academic texts are published there sometimes. Topics so far have been "city on the net", "intelligent agents and artificial life" and "architecture". Future topics will be "computers and films", "economy" and "art".

Do you get the impression they are all used equally, or that there might be clear 'hot spots' that are used more regularly than others?

Unfortunately we have the impression that the use of articles is equivalent to internet-demographics. That means that young males with a relatively high education level and technical interests seem to be our main readership. The articles which get most hits feature technical topics, censorship, legal issues. Also recently we had some contributions by 'names' like Stanislav Lem and Joseph Weizenbaum - these articles also get many readers. Also, people tend to click on any article that has the words 'net" or "web" in the title. We look at these statistics but our policy is to not let ourselves be influenced too easily by these results. Recently 'pop~Tarts' got more hits, especially the article about GASHgirl/VNS Matrix seems to be a 'runner'. That gives some hope, but the art section is still suffering a lack of readers/users, especially the real net art projects. This is something that I feel is a pity since we have works by Olia Lialina, Critical Art Ensemble and others who really deserve more attention. So we will continue doing what we think is right and not start hunting for fast success.

What were the main subject areas you felt needed to be covered or looked into when you first started. How do you feel about that now that the site has been up for a while?

As the subtitle of our magazine is "magazine of netculture" we try to cover net-related topics. But as you can see from above this is interpreted in a very far stretched way. Generally we try to look at all these 'myths of the internet' and try to see what it is really about. In this context essays like Barbrook/Cameron's "Californean Ideology" or Pierre Levy«s "Cyberculture" gave a good basis from where to start doing further work. But deconstructing myths of the internet means that we also have to deal with topics which we do not really 'like' such as, for example, extropians, post-humanists, memetics. We think that these things should also be discussed, find some critical evaluation. The futurist rhetoric around such topics attracts many people and we feel it is part of our job to deconstruct them, give people a clue from where to start their own critical thinking. This might sound arrogant, but from my own history I know that a few years ago my thinking was much more influenced by futuristic notions. I might have got 'cyberhyped' if I hadn't attended conferences like "Next Five Minutes I and II" or read the texts of Saskia Sassen, Mike Davis and the like.

Now I think the basic battle-ground is set and a pragmatic view on real politics is necessary. So I believe that is a string of work that should be enhanced in Telepolis. If you stay in theoretical spheres too much you can lose contact with reality. So I'm trying to bring in as much concrete material as possible, about legal issues, the question of access, government influences, restrictions imposed as a result of the actions of commercial enterprises and so on. But this is hard to do since it takes you to the edge of investigative journalism and I really don't feel like a journalist. It is always easier for me to write a nice reflection on a media art event than to be in touch with every political event and to search for real data with smoking modem cables. But I will keep trying to do this even though many of these texts, like the press releases from the Ministries of Telecommunication, are hard to bear for us 'beatiful souls'.

It seems that, compared to nettime and Rhizome (the other two online 'publishers' we are looking at) Telepolis, to a certain extent, has a more traditional structure and editorial methodology. Though there are equally as many crossovers, I was wondering how you felt about these different methods; the open contributions structure and/or e-mail list and the magazine/archive. Have you thought about integrating e-mail into what Telepolis does?

We wanted to integrate email from the beginning but we had to face some technical problems in the first 9 months. To put it straight we had no real web-master or technician. Now that this is settled integrating more interactivity will be among the first things that we will do in 97. It's good that you mentioned nettime and Rhizome because we know each other quite well and therefore we know it would be stupid trying to copy these concepts. There should be a division of work and they already do a good job. So what I mean with 'interactivity" will be no mailing-list but more like a readers' forum. There will be the possibility for readers to react to articles and read the reactions of other readers. It will be organised via a combination of mail and html like a newsgroup on the web with threads of discussion that one can follow. Another level could be a three-dimensional Telepolis which is just an open structure for so called "user generated content". But with regard to this we are in an early, conceptual phase. We are a small team with two editors, a graphic designer and a part-time webmaster, so we have to be aware that we cannot do all the things that we would like to do in the appropriate time frame.

One issue that was raised at the DEAF symposium in Rotterdam, was the one of open (and free) access to diverse information archives - the point was raised that in the heated debate about freedom of expression online, one of the other great hopes for the internet (for being a kind of easy to access, electronic, hypertextually linked library) had been pushed to the rear. How do you feel about this, do you think it is an exaggeration?

Not at all. It is an important issue (among others). We had an article about this topic by Eveline Lubbers, Buro Jansen and Janssen, recently. She wrote about Europol and Statewatch. But of course one article is like a drop of water in the dessert. I think that this issue would need some campaigning. In German speaking countries there is no real sensitivity for such issues. People tend to think that 'democracy' is made by the government and all they have to do is vote once in a while. A neoliberal thinking is gaining more and more ground, along the lines of "the market will sort things out". Maybe I should not say this as the editor of a commercial ;-) magazine, financed by a private company, but I am convinced that the market will not take care of this issue. So we need legislation that supports the creation of socially valuable content on the net. Instead, the main discussion is about censorship. The main prejudice of people uninformed about the net is that it contains 99% rubbish. If developments go on like they are now maybe they will be right in the end.

This is where the issue of finance comes in, and of different political and cultural contexts. In Holland there is a long history of independent, and so-called 'tactical media' thinking and organisation, combined with a supportive public funding system. This can have significant consequences internationally, as organisations there can provide server space, know how or whatever to other organisations. How do you feel about the climate vis à vis what you are doing in Germany, or do you think that looking at these contexts in too deterministic a way reduces possibilities?

Well, there has been this "radikal-case' recently. The German Federal Lawyer asked providers to block access to the server, since among its 3000 user sites there was also the site of radikal, a magazine that is forbidden in Germany since it is accused of supporting the German RAF (Red Army Fraction). A group of German providers immediately followed this order, giving a very bad example of self-control. Of course they were not very successful, since xs4all answered with rotating IP-numbers and official protests and the site was mirrored on numerous servers. In effect radikal got more attention than it ever had. But this easy victory lead to a more serious backlash. A few weeks ago a group of Dutch and German police men broke into a flat in Holland to arrest the person who is suspected to have set up the site of radikal. This common action of Dutch and German special police is a real threat to the traditionally tolerant politics of the Netherlands. For centuries Amsterdam was a place where political exiles could go. In a united Europe this doesn't seem to be possible any longer. International co-operation contracts between police forces are being set up and Amsterdam is no longer a safe haven for the politically other-minded. On various multilateral levels - European Union, OECD, OSZE, UNO, G-7 - politicians are thinking about how to 'clean up cyberspace' and Germans are among those demanding new restrictive laws. With the enormous economic influence of Germany in the EU, teaming up with France and its traditional centralised top-down government structure, such tendencies might win, pushing aside the positions of more liberal countries like Holland or Sweden.

So, to not be too deterministic, we can only hope that a political debate regarding these issues has started in Germany. To be realistic, a medium like Telepolis is much too weak to be very productive in this situation. Therefore we should search for as many strategies as possible for horizontal cooperation on an equal level with other ‘small’ content providers; only in conjunction with other initiatives like mute, nettime, rhizome,,, v2_east do we have a chance to be heard. Also, we should encourage the formation of long term permanent structures for alternative access and content providers like,, thing network, t0 and silverserver Vienna, to name just a few. Coalitions with the educational sector can also be productive, for example with the, with “Forschungsgruppe Kulturraum internet”, the Hypermedia Research Centre and other institutions. Only if there are open access structures can you expect many people from the cultural and political landscape to join in and form networks of islands of highly interesting content.

Armin Medosch <>Telepolis, Heise VerlagKuehbachstr. 11 81543 Munich, GermanyT: +49 89 62 50 04 72 F: +49 89 62 50 04 van Mourik Broekman <>