Geert Lovink, Dark Fibers: Tracking Critical Internet Culture

Review by Christina Van Houten

Geert Lovink. Dark Fibers: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

[1] It is no surprise that media theorist and net critic Geert Lovink titles his historical reading of the simultaneous socialization and massification of the Internet Dark Fibers. Cyber-terminology that literally refers to unused fiber-optic cable, applied here it further emphasizes what Lovink sees as the potential of media – artistic, academic, political, economic, or otherwise – with regard to the way that cyber-culture is conceived of and used at the dawn of the twenty-first century. An independent media theorist who, among other examples of his web activism, founded nettime mailing lists, participates in Adikno, and co-founded the community online digital server Digital City, Lovink uses his insider-status as net critic avant la lettre to critique what have now become the interrelated cultural questions of online materiality and virtual intellectualism.

[2] Wary of dialectics in what he describes as the postmodern age dominated by the often collusive forces of the economic sector of telecom carriers, access providers, software giants, and the media industry that primarily associate technology with profit margins and of governments that "further [privatize] what is left of the Internet public domain, restricting privacy, demanding anti-'cyber terrorism' legislation, installing content filters, and tolerating monopolies," Lovink nonetheless writes a history of this moment in order to think through the binaries of corporate domination and state control, economic competence and political responsibility, intellectual engagement and aesthetic autonomy, and private domain and public access (3). However, crucial to his tracking of "critical Internet culture" is the recognition that his history is one that neither seeks to resolve the dialectic of past or present Internet temporal constructions nor privileges the dichotomy of theory or praxis as constituting what could be pragmatic reform measures. Lovink writes that his exigence is not to draft a "media archaeology" that reconsiders history or futurity, but rather is to record "Internet culture as it actually develops" with the intention of investigating "the dynamics of the post-euphoric period in which ideas transform into social networks, institutions, and informal structures" (4). Indeed, his rhizomatic form of presentation – his Darstellung – requires that we read his text as a narrative constellation rather than a traditional linear history; therefore, to trace the trajectory of Lovink's particular internet history is to recognize that his theory and research revolve around "near past" case studies framed by engaged readings of present critical theory and (potentially) near future praxis.

[3] The themes of Lovink's particular cyber-story center on the "right now" of media politics and the "but how" of net progress. In particular, the thrust of each of these is directed toward the question of what constitutes "cultural intelligence in the digital age" (336). The story that Lovink is trying to tell is one of an emerging visual arts scene that blends avant-garde aesthetics with radical net theory whose innovations were displaced and commodified once its technology – and more, both the usefulness and profitability of that media – was discovered by venture capitalists, big business, and nation states. The purpose of this approach is two-fold: first, it sets-up a call-to-action for the immediate creation of "net criticism" that will temporarily "articulate the net with materiality" as such an approach "lines the possibility of a politics that recognizes the politics of social practice" (12); and second, it necessitates a speedy attempt to transition from such a radical theory of media pragmatism to a praxical activism precisely because the net's accelerated development – its"Internet time" – is currently "driven by the net economy's hyper growth, bumping from boom to crash and back" (331).

[4] For example, in the constellations "Case Studies" and "Crystals of Net Criticism," composed of a series of journal-like essays of which the majority were previously published online, Lovink grapples with what this called-for culture would look like; and more, he makes the case for re-considering culture through the respective lenses of what would define traditional intellectuals and emergent new media artists. Indeed, he suggests that their plight is a similar one, contingent upon the question of language and their respective responses to "the debates about ideology and power," "the notions of discourse and structures," and "the centrality of the media," and which ultimately moves toward "a continuous process of redefinition of 'language' from being just the spoken and written word toward 'language' as a general structural mechanism, ending with a very abstract definition, the language of technology, which can no longer be deconstructed as an ideology so easily" (26).

[5] This move is especially important for Lovink – besides its obvious attempt at coalition building beyond his cyber-compatriots – because it relates two "high culture" groups whose distinction and cultural capital has been diminished by the emergence of both popular culture and online masses. He notes that during the 1980s, academics aligned themselves with visual artists, if only because theory began to expand its notion of the text beyond words to include visual – at that moment, primarily video – art (28). But while this marks the first decisive intersection of their respective disciplines, Lovink's comparison of these two groups facilitates a cultural reading that further suggests a chronological move to the academic culture wars of the 1990s where conservative Reaganomics militated readings of intellectualism and new media as prioritizing a "global economic model" in which "whether old or new, high or low, culture [has become] a commodity, one of the fastest growing resources the world is currently exploiting" (336). In short, both academic and media theory have become marginalized precisely because late capitalism has created a cultural crisis in which language as a structural mechanism has become abstracted and in which the methods for reading a text have become problematized; consequently, the status of the text – writing and visual art alike – and of textual production have been radically altered as society has subscribed to a pragmatism that values output, efficiency, and profit.

[6] What proves most compelling about Dark Fibers is its solution to the cybercultural turn from book culture to the rise of the public sphere in the form of the VI, the "Virtual Intellectual." According to Lovink, these "knowledge workers" prove fluent in the "virtual condition" of the Internet because they prove capable of negotiating a "specific mixture of local and global cultures, digitized and non-digitized source material, and real and screen-only experiences" (37). Or put another way, the VI is the intellectual-aesthete of the future precisely because s/he can negotiate – and indeed rethink – "the limitations of today's texts, without at the same time becoming a servant to the 'empire of images'" (27).

[7] But at the same time, what proves most promising about Lovink's theoretical conception of the VI in terms of the future potential of both net reform and productivity proves most problematic in his sustained refusal to actively develop a praxis that will achieve media freedom. Lovink at once dismisses the need for direct action and discounts the notions of futurity or utopia in his book. So while he rightfully notes that in general "the cultural sector is merely using technology as a tool and does not want its core to be affected by the binary machine logic" and that in particular "the power of the VI is a potential one" in which "s/he might turn up as a virtual creature, but could as well remain elusive and never leave the conceptual, beta stage," his refusal to engage directly with the dialectic of theory/praxis does little more than give the reader a sense of the possibility for the radical transformation that his pragmatism and the VI's translatability might afford (31; 36). To be sure, the questions still remain regarding how scholars and net activists are supposed to mediate their disciplinary differences in order to move beyond theory to praxis, to move beyond media as a tool, and to move beyond the traditional "utopic" ideologies into the cyber-era of the VI.

[8] Drawing upon the influence of John Dewey's notion of pragmatism, Lovink offers a slight rebuttal to this challenge, noting that "if we do not impose absolute values upon the directions new media might take, more realms of possibilities might reveal themselves. It is the role of theory to draw these images, not to impose them on reality" (345). Although his impulse to avoid a totalizing response to the economics and politics of contemporary cyberculture avoids a closure of the possibility of cultural reform, such an approach ignores the almost formulaic way in which the new media revolution he is calling for at the start of the twenty-first century requires a praxis that reconsiders the totality of cyberspace and the cultural innovation that new technology will provide. Indeed, such a refusal to connect theory with praxis seems antithetical to the notion of postmodernism that Lovink so freely invokes. As Fredric Jameson has taught us, postmodernism is both a totalizing approach to history and a "genuinely dialectical attempt to think our present time in History" (Postmodernism 46) [1].

[9] More importantly, if the development of the net (and perhaps the survival of Internet culture) is really dependent upon a retroactive response to the digital "boom or bust" of the late 1990s with regard to its technological developments, establishment of the web, and fetishizing dotcom mania, neither Internet time nor culture can afford to ignore issues of praxis (374). Lovink is right to suggest that "differentiation and rhizomatic growth" indicate a movement toward net development toward digital divergence, but that does not mean that "the potential of 'dark fiber' yet to be realized" must read futurity or utopia as the ideal in practice (351; 376). Rather, the future of the net and the possibility of utopia require that media theory re-think the present by thinking differently about the theoretical and physical infrastructures already in place. Or, in the case of Lovink's Dark Fibers, the potential of his narrative's "dark fiber" requires that the theoretical infrastructure of his narrative constellations be at once charged by and transmitters of a praxical media pragmatism. And for Lovink to succeed in this task, it is now up to his community of intellectuals, artists, and net critics to answer his cyber-cultural call.


[1] Fredric Jameson. Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991.