Sunday, May 31, 2009

RIP World Wide Web 1993-2001

forwarded to empyre

Until the crash of 2001, the web was one of the longest-lived Temporary Autonomous Zones our generation ever knew. Capital failed to understand. Not until the years after 2001 did it begin to build business models based in the Web rather than imported from magazine publishing and the broadcast industry.

Marx had established the principles in the famous Fragment on Machines (pp 690 ff) in Grundrisse: the social intellect / general intellect is manifest in two processes. In one, the skill developed over generrations in making things is ossified into machinery and turned to purposes of exploitation. In the second, the ways workers organise themselves in factories so they can get longer breaks or leave earlier are systematised by Capital. But as Virno argues in Grammar of the Multitude, this innovative power to make new systems is no longer a side benefit of emplying workers: it is written into our contracts.

The risk capital always runs is that the endless revolutions in the means of production (machinery, organisation) constantly run ahead of capital's ability to assimilate them. This is what happened when the Web turned the internet into a mass medium. Capital had no idea how to respond, and the result was a fantastic flowering of creativity, of new kinds of cultural practice, new types of service, now modes of organisation, among which perhaps the Battle of Seattle can stand as a decent monument.

Now of course with Web 2.0, capital has finally managed to catch up and turn that innovatory impetus into a profit-making enterprise, although it damn near blew itself up in the inflationary vapourware moment of the early 2000s.

What is left of the revolutionary Web is marked by nostalgia, as people have been suggesting on nettime lately (Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis). But that is no reason to give up fighting for a piece of it; or to build alternatives inside the belly of the whale. Nor is it a reason not to pursue alternatives to the monetarised Web, in particular FLOSS and P2P. The mysterious, fluid, granular "we" can no more afford to give up the struggle for the Web than we can afford to give up struggling to find new alternatives to it.

There are huge risks involved: the slow but certain approach of IPv6 might flag the splintting of the Web into two, and if two why not many more. I find that thought frightening. Other scenarios involve freeing more radio spectrum from the dominance of TV signals, making wireless the new terrain, probably a more hopeful variant. But for now we have to admit the battle of the internet is over and capital won. The question is how do we operate now: Tactically? Strategically? And how do we minimise or at least delay the assimlation of whatever we invent into the reproduction of capital?

(and to preempt discussion, a) call it biopower if you prefer and b) the market is neither inevitable nor beneficial: the sixty years since Bretton Woods have failed abjectly to provide even survival levels for the majority of the world's population)

Monday, May 11, 2009