At first, no doubt, only the reproduction and transmission of works of art will be affected. It will be possible to send anywhere or to re-create anywhere a system of sensations, or more precisely a system of stimuli, provoked by some object or event in any given place. Works of art will acquire a kind of ubiquity. We shall only have to summon them and there they will be…They will not merely exist in themselves but will exist wherever someone with a certain apparatus happens to be.
(Paul Valéry, ‘The Conquest of Ubiquity’, 225-6)
Paul Valéry made these remarks in 1934, as the first drive-in movie theater opened in New Jersey, as Muzak was born, as the Associated Press started its international wirephoto service, and as a company called Imperial & International Communications renamed itself Cable & Wireless. Regular TV broadcasting would begin in England two years later, and in the U.S. in 1939, the same year John Atanasoff and Clifford Berry completed the prototype of the first digital computer. (Caslon Analytics)
Valéry’s prognostications may of course be read alongside the thinking of Walter Benjamin, who quotes this passage in his famous essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Both stress that it is not simply the forms taken by art works that are changing, but their very conditions of possibility, or put another way (Benjamin’s), that they are henceforth designed with their reproducibility in mind. It is therefore neither uniqueness, nor specificity, but the potential for ‘ubiquity’, that yields the value of the work made for the new media.
Just as water, gas and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.(226)
Two things have always struck me about Valéry’s analysis. The first is his characterization – for want of a better word, metaphysical – of the new cultural produce. It is not simply a movement from the clunky physicality of the artisanal object to that of the commodity; rather, it is a commutation, a transmogrification, a liquidation of the cultural object, whose value and form henceforth arise according to its new fluidity. The cultural ‘fluid’ – what is given (data) to our ‘sense organs’ – behaves more like energy, or money, than the older art object. These properties suggest a whole new political economy of the culture industries.
Just as we are accustomed, if not enslaved, to the various forms of energy that pour into our homes, we shall find it perfectly natural to receive the ultrarapid variations or oscillations that our sense organs gather in and integrate to form all we know. I do not know whether a philosopher has ever dreamed of a company engaged in the home delivery of Sensory Reality
So began what we might call our Broadband Dreaming. Secondly, Valéry cannot but invoke the public utility company, a dominant corporate form in his day, but which to us is an endangered species, having almost liquidated itself over the course of the last few decades’ ecstatic neoliberalism. According to the Shorter OED, the “utility” provides something “able to satisfy human needs or wants”; it is a service (such as electricity or water) considered essential to the community; and it describes the provider of such a service or supply, usually ‘a nationalized or private monopoly subject to public regulation’. And this is precisely why I return to Valéry in opening a volume on ‘fibre’. For it is the privatization of communications infrastructure, hastening the closure of this zone of ‘public’ interest and community ‘needs’ – and this is as much about the downgrading of expectations as of actual services – that underlies the current political economy of networks and networked culture, and which prompts many of the articles collected here.
What’s more, Valéry is especially alert to the peculiar purity of demand that the utility assumes, and our impatience for art’s sensory data “when not only our mind desires it, but our soul and whole being craves and as it were anticipates it”. Perhaps this well-nigh existential impatience is a necessary condition of networking – will we ever be satisfied with the bandwidth we have? As Gerard Goggin writes in the feature article:
As the citizen is recast as consumer and customer, we rethink our cultural and political axioms as well as the axes that orient our understandings in this area. Information might travel close to the speed of light, and we might fantasise about optical fibre to the home (or pillow), but our terrain, our band where the struggle lies today, is narrower than we wish.
That which we have ‘on tap’ has a way of engendering in us a reliance and an appetite somewhat out of keeping with actual need. Where conventional economic analysis might therefore struggle to explain our current obsession with fibre, histories of addiction, of affect and of symbolic exchange might succeed.
The Fibreculture Flavour
When we started the Fibreculture list in early 2001, national communications policy was a central concern, as was the question of how to make the best of it through critique and alternative networking practices, against the many challenges presented by the global and local zeitgeist of privatization, and by the post-dotcom deflation of the telecoms sector. Ravenous former monopolies, in rebound mode, were punished for their over-extensions into markets they knew little about, as the blue skies clouded over. Against this backdrop, it seemed most urgent to support, build upon, and learn from the experiences of a panoply of alternative media networks – of virtual communities getting real, and real communities going virtual – in order to learn the lessons of the dotcom debacle. Buzzwords were: D.I.Y. and tactical media, openness, sustainability, and collaborative and distributed models.
But this collaboration between Fibreculture and M/C is not just content-sharing by two networks with overlapping interests, although this sort of temporary network chiasm demonstrates an untapped flexibility that ICTs retain in spite of the calcification of their institutions and their economic devaluation post-dotcom. Rather, at the heart of this experiment was an alternative peer-review process, a much-needed intervention into the orthodoxy (too long unrenovated) of blind peer-review. It took the form of a supplementary round of ‘collaborative text filtering’.
Traditionally, peer-review is closed (‘blind’), centralized, and tends to be somewhat arbitrary; our alternative is distributed, open and more heuristic. From the list’s subscribers, small cells of four or five readers were formed; submissions were posted to the list, assigned to a cell, and readers were asked to post their critical responses within two weeks. Some of the ensuing dialogue was fascinating, all of it engaged and generous. The Fibreculture flavour thus consists of a wider discussion and debate inflecting the author’s final submission. ‘Review’ here was oriented towards an opening, rather than a closure, of the text, giving rise to a sharing of resources, references and informed opinions. These exchanges remain accessible via the list archives (look for subject lines ‘MCFIBRE’ and ‘Re: MCFIBRE’) at:
What’s lost is anonymity and the discursive or disciplinary specialization of reviewers – both are key components of the older model, both with their downside. The question must be asked: If interdisciplinarity means anything beyond the proliferation of competing discourses, what are its implications for the practices and economies of academic publishing, and for the ‘knowledge economy’ generally?
Of course, the spread of topics does mirror Fibreculture’s interests. Half of the authors assembled here are regular contributors to the list. They include its co-founder, Geert Lovink, who manages to report and speculate (at once!) on the much-paraded relationship between art and science; and Gerard Goggin, whose informative feature article takes up many of the concerns raised above, with respect to broadband infrastructure (and policy) in particular. Emy Tseng and Kyle Eischen take the notion of infrastructure more technically in considering how it might inform a progressive techno-geography.
Fibreculture explores the politics of networks and ICTs, but also their cultures. The experiential (and ‘affective’) dimension of networked culture was also a prevalent theme of responses to the Call For Papers, including artist and architect Petra Gemeinboeck’s theoretical explanation of her installation Maya – Veil of Illusion. Fibre is where the economic meets the social, where the public meets the private, and intrudes upon it. Grayson Cooke responds in kind (and with humour) to the intrusive excesses of Spam. For Adrian Mackenzie, both social and technical practices “are integrated in our politics. When politics integrates human affairs and technical things, collective affects concerning infrastructure arise… Infrastructures are integral to how cultural forms of life render and inhabit their worlds.” But some aspects of sociality migrate to the networks more easily than others, as Jon Marshall discovers in his analysis of gendered and gendering behaviour online.
For all their complexity, the interweavings of affect in the networks are anything but random. As we find in Andrew Murphie’s anthropological musing (after José Gil) on the place of ritual in the technosphere:
Even at its apparently most disorganized … (in ritual ecstasy for example), ritual magic is in reality extremely organised (although an organisation of forces and translations rather than one of stable states). As Gil writes, even the 'gestures, words, or cries of the possessed are coded'. Indeed, the codes involved are precisely those of possession, but of a possession by networks rather than of them…
Also of a theoretical bent is Andrew Goffey’s fascinating synopsis of the relationship – potentially very revealing – between immunology and theories of networked communication and organization. A welcome reminder of the necessity, and the speculative pleasures, of pressing on with cross-disciplinary investigation, even when it seems ‘interdisciplinarity’ has devolved from a type of work to a mere ‘framework’ for funding agendas and institutional window-dressing.
As with all Fibreculture projects, no all-inclusive vision of anything is offered here. What we present instead is another installment of networked multiplicity, the unpredictable mixture of codes, idioms and critical thought on which list cultures seem to thrive.
With thanks to the team at M/C, to the contributors and reviewers (especially Mel Gregg, Ned Rossiter and Esther Milne), and to all who contribute to the Fibreculture community.