Guest Post: Ashley Crawford on Uncanny Networks by Geert Lovink

Have you ever been to a party where every conversation was of interest? Didn’t think so, but as host, Geert Lovink, the founder of Nettime, might just pull it off.

Lovink’s latest book, Uncanny Networks (MIT Press), is a roller-coaster ride of discussion that ranges from art to politics, techno-tribes to IPOs, radical politics to futuristic fantasy.

What is even more intriguing about Lovink’s compendium is its geographic range. Although a number of these interviews were conducted via email, a stunning amount are face to face experiences in various corners of the globe. I would love to see this guy’s frequent flyer account. Lovink leaps from Sydney to Linz, Finland to Kassel, Taiwan to Amsterdam, but what is important about this is the internationalist content of Uncanny Networks. Lovink powerfully links the virtual to the actual with serious discussions about political and cultural scenarios in Los Angeles, Taiwan, Albania, Bulgaria, India and other parts of the world. This is almost a Lonely Planet guide for media thinkers and practitioners.

Naturally, as in any party, not every conversation will be to your taste. In fact there are a few that are rather dull, but even those have highpoints, if only by raising points to disagree with. Writer Susan George describes herself as “alarmist” and proves herself all too correct when she says; “For the first time in history, we do not have much time ahead of us.” And Lovink accurately points out that Slavoj Zizek “seemed to be criticising film without ever having seen one,” in his introduction to a rather laborious discourse on cinema and politics in which Zizek goes so far as to compare David Lynch to Leni Riefenstahl.

Lovink rather cheekily introduces his book by conducting an interview with himself and asks the intriguing question; “Wouldn’t time be better spent writing original pieces? You are not a journalist. Shouldn’t a media theorist stick to theory?” That actually sounds like a question that a journalist would ask, but it is difficult to imagine any journalist as well-read, curious and intelligent as Lovink.

Of course the answer is that the nature of interviews is a far more friendly form to read than the average essay. It also allows what Lovink describes as “the beauty of digital discord” to come shining through. This is no more obvious than in the discussions with Mark Dery, Mike Davis, Paulina Borsook, and McKenzie Wark. Dery, as always, delivers a blistering diatribe, suggesting that “we take a flamethrower to Newt Gingrich cum Alvin Toffler style laissez-faire futurism” and takes down Douglas Rushkoff, Arthur Kroker and John Perry Barlow while he’s at it. This is a particularly lively encounter that takes no prisoners.

Wark on a “third class” — the intellectuals and theorists who “qualify and interpret the actions of the others” — takes a fresh look at the role of academics in contemporary society (although if Wark trots out his old “we no longer have roots, we have aerials” quote one more time I will strangle him). Davis on gated communities, and Borsook on the new economy are all riveting reads. Sadly the Borsook discussion seems a tad dated: lets face it, talking about Wired magazine is, well, tired especially when the fate of such boom publications as Red Herring and The Industry Standard are so intriguing. Borsook’s observations about the pollutants created from Silicon Valley output is sobering reading indeed.

A certain degree of being dated is inevitable. Lovink began conducting his interviews in the early 1990s, and between 1995 and 2000 posted many on Nettime. However rather than being a negative, they in fact supply us with a snapshot of specific periods and modes of thought, some highly prescient.

Beyond the Western style thinkers interrogated here, Lovink’s compendium is refreshing for its level playing field approach to other cultures. An interview with Ravi Sundaram is jam packed with insightful information on both historical and contemporary culture in India. Similarly Toshiya Ueno on Japanese subcultures, Finland’s Marita Liula on “art in the age of the mobile phone” and Kuan-Hsing Chen on contemporary media in Taiwan are full of first hand observations from cultures that tend to be side-lined in contemporary media studies.

Sadly, however, that is true of many of the figures collected in Uncanny. Lovink makes that point himself in his own interview: “I don’t think I have selected any interview partners because of their alleged subcultural, pop theory ‘celebrity’ status. I only wish they had it… The scenes these people are operating in are small, in fact way too small if you compare them to the hypergrowth of the IT sector as a whole.”

But Lovink’s selection of subjects is refreshing for that reason alone. Although there are some high profile names here; Mike Davis, Arthur Kroker, Mark Dery and Gayatri Spivak, for example, Lovink has avoided the usual role call of futurist figures; no Virillio or Baudrillard or Gibson or Sterling (although any of those would have been preferable to Kroker).

As Bruce Sterling says in his blurb, “If you want to know what media theory will say five years from now, then read Uncanny Networks to see what Geert Lovink said five years ago.” This is a dizzying ride, not always successful, but the odd clunkers make the more powerful discussions all the more delightful. If I have one major, and horrified, criticism of Uncanny, it would the lack of an index — a major and silly oversight for a book so dense in references.

Uncanny Networks appears almost simultaneously with another MIT tome, Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro. These two books side by side will give any aspiring media theorist and cultural commentator almost too much food for thought — if that were possible.

Ashley Crawford is the editor of the 21C Magazine compilation, Transit Lounge.